SAVANNAH, Ga. — In a show that broke attendance records, grower-shippers at the Southeast Regional Fruit and Vegetable Conference heard how new produce food safety rules will be implemented.

Southeast conference hits on labor, food safetyIn a Food and Drug Administration regulatory update, David Gombas, senior vice president of food safety and technology for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association, said the FDA planned to issue national produce safety rules in early January. Although the FDA delayed the release, Gombas said officials still expect to publish the rule sometime in January.

“Nothing will change tomorrow other than the proposed rules which are supposed to be published any day now,” Gombas said Jan. 6. “Everyone that is a stakeholder has a right to submit a comment. How you do it can have an impact. I encourage people to work through their associations. Everyone has an opinion on this but your association is a great place to get opinions together on one voice. If you say one thing to the FDA, it will have more of an impact than everyone speaking their own piece.”

Oscar Garrison, division director of consumer protection for the Georgia Department of Agriculture, Atlanta, said growers should expect the rules to be somewhat vague and not plan to see a guidance document. The state department, however, is working closer with packinghouses.

“Our world is changing,” he said. “Our produce is changing. We all need to put our seatbelts on because it’s going to be a wild ride for a while.”

In its 14th year, the show drew a record 2,700 attendees Jan. 5-8 at the Savannah International Convention Center, up 15% from 2011, said Charles Hall, executive director of show co-sponsor Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association, LaGrange.

Dick Minor, association president and partner with Minor Produce Inc. and Minor Bros. Farm, Leslie, said immigration issues, particularly Georgia’s passage of a strict anti-immigration law, are stressing the produce industry.

“2011 will be remembered for the labor issues and immigration, the passing of HB 87 and how it affected our whole industry,” Minor said. “We hope in the future through the advocacy we have done in Washington and Atlanta that we can maybe make some progress on the issue.”

The show, co-sponsored by the South Carolina Peach Council, Columbia, also featured grower sessions on commodities including blueberries, sweet corn, peaches, Vidalia onions and watermelon.