(Jan. 9) WASHINGTON, D.C. —The U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced a new plan that has some in the produce industry up in arms.

As of Oct. 1, the Agricultural Marketing Service will require compliance with the Food and Drug Administration’s good agricultural practices and good handling practices for all fresh products supplied to the USDA’s fruit and vegetable programs. The requirements will only affect the USDA’s procurement program and those companies that are suppliers to that program.

Donna Garren, vice president of scientific and technical affairs for the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, said the association was unhappy with the move because nobody in the industry was consulted before the announcement.

In a letter to A.J. Yates, administrator of the Agricultural Marketing Service, Garren said the requirement was in opposition to the voluntary nature of the guidelines laid out by the FDA.

“There is no other federal requirement for compliance with the FDA voluntary guidance,” she said. “And it appears a rather backdoor regulatory action by the agency through a commodity purchasing program.”

Forman said the requirement — which was based on a similar requirement the department made with its processed fruit and vegetable programs several years ago — doesn’t require anything that most people aren’t already doing anyway.

“The requirements are not unusual and are typically met,” he said.

In addition, Foreman said the program would affect a relatively small amount of fresh produce. Approximately 90% of what the USDA purchases through its procurement program is processed fruits and vegetables.

As for consulting the industry, Foreman said the announcement — which was made the week of Dec. 28 — was made in plenty of time to allow for feedback from the industry. To date however, he has heard none. Foreman said this is not unusual for announcements of this type.

“When we made the plan for the processing side several years ago, we got virtually no reaction from anybody,” he said.

Foreman said the department welcomes any questions and feedback from anyone in the industry regarding this or other issues.

“That’s what we’re here for,” he said.

Certification for the program, Forman said, will be conducted by either USDA or federal/state cooperating agencies. These agencies would include federal/state market inspectors as well as people licensed by the USDA at state departments of agriculture.

“The logistics and hence the costs tend to be fairly low that way, and we get a uniform review being done,” he said.

Foreman said companies will not be able to use third-party auditing agencies for the program.

Garren said limiting the auditing agencies available could be a problem for those companies that supply the program. In her letter, she urged Yates to take this fact and others into consideration before implimenting the requirement.

“United encourages the agency to reconsider this requirement and consider discussing alternative options with the industry before initiation of this verification program,” she said.

Forman said the USDA decided to initiate the program at this time not because it had been experiencing problems in its fruit and vegetable programs, but, rather, to avoid any problems in the future. He said it has taken several years to put the initiative together.

“We thought of doing this several years ago when we began requiring a plant survey for our processed fruits and vegetables,” he said. “At that time there were no official guidelines for fresh products. Since then, the FDA has developed guidelines. We, at the same time, have had to develop a process to verify that people are employing those guidelines.”

For more information on the program, call the USDA at (800) 811-2373 or visit the Web site at www.usda.gov.