The U.S. Department of Agriculture will “strongly encourage” immediate referendums to establish all future research and promotion programs.

USDA wants immediate referendums on promotion programsThe new Agricultural Marketing Service policy apparently pushes aside a previous option to delay votes on new research and promotion programs for as long as three years after they are established. The change was announced March 28, the same day that the USDA’s Office of Inspector General released a 25-page review of USDA’s research and promotion programs.

The AMS requested the review in 2010 to help the agency identify methods for improved oversight of producer-funded research and promotion programs. The review was conducted in 2010 and 2011.

The OIG document didn’t contain much criticism of USDA oversight of research and promotion boards. The OIG said the AMS should develop and implement standard operating procedures for oversight activities and internal reviews of program area operations.

The AMS agreed with the report’s findings and said it will address periodic management reviews by June 30 of this year.

“It seemed like kind of a standard overview of how oversight is working with nothing particularly newsworthy being uncovered,” said Tom O’Brien, Washington, D.C., representative for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association. “It looked hard and didn’t see much.”

In the report, the OIG concluded AMS that needs to improve its general oversight of 19 research and promotion boards. Those boards include promotion efforts for potatoes, watermelon, mangoes, mushrooms, hass avocados, blueberries and watermelons. Beef, pork eggs, milk and lamb, are also included.

Media attention late last year on a newly minted Christmas tree promotion order — called the “Christmas tree tax” by conservative pundits — caused the agency to mothball the promotion and research program indefinitely. The USDA had approved the Christmas Tree Promotion, Research and Information Order on Nov. 8 and set the producer referendum three years after the collection of assessments began. After a widespread reporting about the “Christmas tree tax” - the order’s assessment of 15 cents per tree on domestic and imported producers of Christmas trees — the agency issued an indefinite stay of the order in mid-November.

O’Brien said the media firestorm about the “Christmas tree tax” seemed specific to that industry and didn’t seem to alter perceptions of other research and promotion orders.

Hank Giclas, senior vice president for science, technology and strategic planning at Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers, said there is still no indication on when the USDA will act on a National Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement. The agency issued a proposed rule on the marketing agreement last April after considering the concept since 2007.

Giclas said he believes USDA will wait on issuing the final rule on the national leafy green marketing agreement until after the FDA issues its long-delayed produce safety rules.

If and when the USDA does publish a final rule on the leafy greens marketing agreement, Giclas assumes the program would have to demonstrate support within the industry before it is formally established. “You would have to people signing up for it for the USDA to determine there is the critical mass to move it forward,” Giclas said.