(Oct. 28) Pushing back implementation of mandatory country-of-origin labeling until 2008, House and Senate conferees on the fiscal 2006 agricultural appropriations bill also provided $7 million for specialty crop block grants and $8 million in additional funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program.

The conference bill boosts the reach of the snack program to 14 states, an increase of six states compared with current levels.

The increase in the number of states for the program exceeded expectations, said Elizabeth Pivonka, president of the Produce for Better Health Foundation, Wilmington, Del.

“It sends a good signal to the produce industry and shows how all the effort on everyone’s part has paid off,” she said.

The combined bill, finalized Oct. 27, now must be approved by both chambers and then signed by President Bush. Both outcomes are anticipated in the next few weeks. The current funding authority for the USDA expires in mid-November.

BLOCK GRANTS

Securing $7 million in block grants for the specialty crops industry in the conference report was gratifying, said Tom Nassif, president of Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers.

“It’s a great start and something we can build on,” agreed Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Maitland.

The House version of the agricultural appropriations bill had funded the block grants provision at $7 million, but the Senate did not provide any money for the program.

The funding for the block grants caps what Nassif called a historic effort that began with the introduction of the Specialty Crop Competitiveness Act in 2003 by then-Reps. Doug Ose, R-Calif. and Cal Dooley, D-Calif.

Block grants were first used in a big way by the industry in 2001, when a one-time allocation of $133 million was provided to the specialty crop industry by Congress. For those funds, allocations to states were determined by specialty crop output.

Even though the dollars for block grants pale compared to the original Ose-Dooley bill — that proposed legislation asked for $500 million in block grants to states for specialty crop producers — Nassif said the $7 million can lay the foundation for additional congressional action to respond to the industry’s challenges of rising costs and mounting international competition.

The Specialty Crops Competitiveness Act passed last year by Congress authorized up to $44.5 million of discretionary funds annually for specialty crop block grants.

Nassif noted that the industry’s farm bill working group and its steering committee of produce association leaders is working to put together a produce title for the 2007 farm bill.

Nassif, one of three chairmen of the group, said the steering committee was considering block grants, nutrition issues, international trade and food safety. He said it was possible the group would begin to attach numbers to their priorities fairly soon, and he also noted that Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, might introduce another version of the Specialty Crop Competitiveness Act.

If Craig does introduce the legislation, Nassif said it will be a transitional form between what exists now and the 2007 farm bill.

“It will be a platform to discussion where the administration and Congress come out on these issues,” he said.

COUNTRY OF ORIGIN DELAY

Most industry leaders approved of the delay in implementation of mandatory country-of-origin labeling. Mandatory labeling at retail was passed in the 2002 farm bill and was pushed back for meat and produce from its original 2004 effective date to Sept. 30, 2006. The conference report’s new implementation date is Sept. 30, 2008.

Drawing particularly harsh fire from retailers, the mandatory law has been widely criticized as unwieldy and too expensive.

“Hopefully this gets us to a point where we can move forward to develop a comprehensive law that all the produce industry can be for,” Guenther said.

He said the House and Senate conferees left the fish and seafood part of the law intact.

“We still need to work on a cost-effective market-driven solution that everyone can support,” added Kathy Means, vice president of government relations for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association.

Means hopes Congress will address the country-of-origin issue before the 2007 farm bill.


SNACK PROGRAM

Getting more funds for the fruit and vegetable school snack program was considered a big win by United officials.

In its appropriation bill, the Senate had included $2 million for additional expansion of the program. The House bill provided no additional money.

However, the combined conference report included the Senate’s $2 million for new funding of Utah and Wisconsin and an additional $6 million to fund four additional states in the program. The four new states will be Texas, Idaho, New Mexico and Connecticut.

Including the eight states that are given permanent funding of $9 million in the 2004 Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act — Ohio, Iowa, Indiana, Mississippi, Michigan, North Carolina, Washington and Pennsylvania — the snack program now includes 14 states and three tribal organizations.

Guenther said the snack program is getting strong congressional support, particularly in states where it already is operating.

Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for United, said the funds will be available to all participating states during the current school year.

“The next step for the states will be to put out notices and start to accept applications,” she said. DiSogra said the snack programs in the new states could be operating by early winter.

ORGANIC PROVISION

House and Senate conferees also acted to include legislative language that provides what Guenther called a “technical fix” to answer court rulings in the Harvey v. Veneman case.

Earlier this year, a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling said, among other points, that the USDA’s organic program improperly allowed synthetic substances in processed organic food.

If that ruling stood, it might have threatened the use of ethylene gas for ripening organic produce in post-harvest applications.

Guenther said the conference report brings the organic law back to the status quo and allows the current list of synthetic ingredients to be used in the production and manufacturing of organic food.