(Feb. 9) WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Department of Agriculture is looking for produce industry input on whether the agency needs to make changes in its grade standards.

The Fresh Products Branch at the USDA is reviewing grade standards as part of a long-range plan to review all standards for fresh fruits and vegetables.

“Industry input is crucial, which is one reason we’re adding a step to our revision process,” said Leanne Skelton, fresh products branch chief of the fruit and vegetable programs for the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.

That extra step involves communicating with people who might have objections to any possible rule changes before they are formally proposed, Skelton said.

“With that notice, it provides us the opportunity to speak more freely with the industry, so that we’re not in the ex parte communications stage, in which you can’t talk to anybody or you have to tell everybody the same thing,” she said.

158 COMMODITIES

The agency will review standards for 158 commodities. First on the list are greenhouse tomatoes, leaf lettuce and sweet potatoes, as well as the creation of a grade standard for mangos.

“We’ve had so many requests for mango inspections over the last 10 years, it has really ballooned in terms of inspection requests,” she said. “Clearly, there’s a need for a standard.”

The agency has developed a prioritized list that includes 40 standards that require more immediate attention than do other standards, Skelton said.

The agency will accept input from the newly rechartered fruit and vegetable advisory committee, which includes representatives of all segments of the produce industry, as well as agriculture officials.

The United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association has a link on its Web site that contains information on each of the grade standards in the revision process, said Keira Franz, director of legislative affairs.

A comprehensive review could be helpful to the industry, Franz added.

Questions of terms like “super select” or “select” sometimes create confusion, Franz said.

PUBLIC COMMENT

Any proposed changes would be posted for a public-comment period before a next step was taken, Franz said.

“It’s sort of a comprehensive approach,” she said, adding that there is no timeline set for the review and any revisions.

“It’s going to go over the course of several years,” she said.

The fruit and vegetable advisory committee, which was rechartered in December, is comprised of growers, shippers, exporters, wholesalers, retailers, processors and trade associations and government officials.

The committee is scheduled to meet for the first time this year Feb. 19-20 in Washington, D.C.