Shutdown allows industry to voice concernsWASHINGTON, D.C. — While it clipped the agenda of the Washington Public Policy Conference, the government shutdown was perhaps good timing for produce industry leaders to express their frustration with government inaction.

More than 500 attendees came to Washington D.C. for the Sept. 30-Oct. 2 United Fresh Produce Association’s grass roots advocacy event.

Industry leaders are impatient with the lack of progress in Washington, D.C. on issues like immigration, said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for United Fresh Produce Association.

“They are tired of the inactivity in Washington D.C. on these issues we’ve been saying are at crisis levels,” Guenther said.

United Fresh urged industry lobbyists to share that frustration with Congress, he said.

One encouraging development is that farm programs may be a part of upcoming budget negotiations, which may signal the farm bill will clear final hurdles to passage, Guenther said.

Changes in the WPPC agenda,including the relocation of the Fresh Festival, a no-show by Let’s Move executive director Sam Kass, and cancelled visits to Capitol Hill and to Food and Drug Administration headquarters, were made necessary by the first government shutdown in 17 years.

Still, Tom Stenzel, president of United Fresh, said WPPC attendees were able to talk about the need for a new farm bill and comprehensive immigration reform in than 100 meetings with lawmakers.

Because no lawmakers had no committee meetings to attend and little other business because of the government shutdown, many had face-to-face meetings with WPPC teams marching on Capitol Hill on Oct.1.

While the produce industry isn’t going to fix gridlock, Stenzel industry leaders who marched on Capitol Hill also expressed the need for bipartisanship.

“It’s time for Republican and Democrats to learn to work together,” he said. “We’ve got to get on with the business of the people, and that’s something all of our members are carrying forward to Capitol Hill.”

The government shutdown caused some meetings with members of the House of Representatives to be cancelled on Oct. 1, and the complete slate of planned WPPC meetings Oct. 2 with members of the Senate were cancelled because of the shutdown.

Ben Wiers, Wiers Farm Inc., said his group that marched on Capitol Hill had a meeting with Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, while four other meetings with Ohio representatives were cancelled because of the government shutdown. “Both sides need to come together so the country can move on,” he said Oct. 1.

Others had better luck.

“It was a good day for us,” said Chris Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, Yakima, Wash. Schlect was part of a WPPC group that visited the offices of four lawmakers from the state of Washington. and three of the lawmakers spoke with the group. Schlect said both Democrats and Republican expressed passion and frustration about the government shutdown.

There is a sense that once Congress gets beyond the government shutdown and the debt ceiling debates, work can be accomplished on the farm bill and immigration reform, said

John Pandol, director of special projects at Pandol Bros. Inc., Delano, Calif. Pandol said some of the government’s behavior during the shutdown was childish, including taking down agency websites and preventing staff from communicating by e-mail after the shutdown began.

The challenges and shortcomings of the H-2A agricultural guest worker program were addressed in a WPPC farm labor workshop, Guenther said.

“The takeaway from that is that we can’t rely on H-2A only fixes to solve the problem of a workable guest worker program,” he said. “It was a good discussion of what messages we can bring to the Hill on the continuing challenges with immigration reform,” he said.

At the food safety workshop, also on Oct.1, David Gombas, senior vice president of food safety and technology with United Fresh, said there were discussions about planned industry comments on FDA’s proposed food safety rules.

“I heard strong support for a second round of proposed rules because everybody gets it there is going to have to be significant changes in the proposed rules and we want a shot of seeing those changes before they become final changes,” he said.

Gombas also said industry leaders discussed the how the FDA proposed foreign supplier verification regulation could have a significant effect on the import community. Additional work and liabilities with the proposed rule are just now coming into focus, he said. Water standards and metrics of the FDA’s produce safety rule were considered in the workshop; Gombas said many leaders don’t think the FDA’s water testing requirements are science driven.

Industry leaders also said the definition of a farm must be changed in the FDA’s food safety rules, he said.

“The culmination of our thinking is that any operation that handles whole intact fresh produce should be under the produce safety rule, regardless if it is a farm, a packhouse on the farm, a packhouse that allows their neighbors to use the same packhouse, or the largest commercial packhouse in downtown Philadelphia,” he said.

Gombas said the produce safety rule is better suited to cover the safety standards of those packinghouses than the FDA’s preventive controls rule.