(Feb. 23) WASHINGTON, D.C. — A visit from Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman, an early peek at 2002 data from the Micobiological Data Program and a request from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to examine cost cutting options for the PACA branch highlighted the morning agenda of the Feb. 19 meeting of the Fruit and Vegetable Advisory Committee.

Karen Caplan, president and chief executive office of Frieda’s Inc., Los Alamitos, Calif., was elected chairwoman of the committee, and new member Todd Michael, of Michael Farms Inc., Urbana, Ohio, was elected vice chairman.

Robert Epstein, deputy administrator of Science and Technology Programs for the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, briefed the 24-member committee on highlights of 2002 data and possible changes to the controversial program for 2004.

Committee member Dan Wyant, with the Michigan Department of Agriculture said the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program has been used very effectively to defend agriculture practices.

While there was some lingering concern about the mission of MDP among the committee members, Wyant called Epstein’s initial reports on 2002 data positive news for the industry.

“Our food is safe and wholesome,” he said. “Communication of that data is absolutely critical and having understanding of that data the first time out.”

Epstein said the program, which has tested celery, leaf lettuce, romaine lettuce, tomatoes and cantaloupe for salmonella and E. coli, may see changes for 2004, including dropping celery, combining leaf and romaine lettuce as one commodity, introducing alfalfa sprouts and testing 300 samples each of green onions, parsley and cilantro.

PACA CONCERNS

Meanwhile, Jim Frazier, chief, and Bruce Summers, assistant chief of the PACA Branch of Fruit and Vegetable Program, explained how a reduction of the branch’s reserve fund will likely force a doubling of license fees by fiscal year 2009.

Frazier noted the current budget of $9.5 million will rise to $13 million by fiscal year 2009. Current PACA license fees run $550 a year. About 15,500 companies are licensed by PACA, of which 10,600 are paid and 4,200 are retailers who pay no annual license fee.

Summers outlined five possible options to cut costs and potentially delay or mitigate license fee increases. For example, reducing regional offices from five to two would save an average of $683,000 each year, Summers said. A working group was assigned to report to the committee on any and all possible options.