(Sept. 17, 12:57 p.m.) WASHINGTON, D.C. — The farm bill fight of 2008 is done but many battles remain in the fight for mandatory funding for specialty crop priorities and food safety reform, lawmakers said at the United Fresh Produce Association’s Washington Public Policy Conference.

The lawmakers also pledged to help craft food safety regulations that work for both industry and consumers.

Speaking Sept. 11, Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., acknowledged the work of United Fresh — particularly association president Tom Stenzel and United Fresh senior vice president of public policy Robert Guenther — in the successful inclusion of specialty crop priorities in the 2008 farm bill.

“They did an absolutely fabulous job and they deserve a round of applause,” he said.

Cardoza also praised the role of the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance for its fraternity-like unity throughout the writing of the farm bill, noting program crop lawmakers were unsuccessful in efforts to splinter the group of more than 100 associations representing a wide range of specialty crops.

Cardoza recalled a crucial time when one agriculture committee lawmaker tried to splinter the mushroom industry from the specialty alliance by offering the growers a better deal if they sided with program crop interests.

“The little mushroom group — they said ‘No way — we’re sticking with the specialty crop alliance, we are not breaking,’” Cardoza said.

That spurned lawmaker then went back to House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and told him the specialty crop alliance couldn’t be broken, Cardoza said.

“It was that that moment we knew we were going to win and they knew they couldn’t break us up,” Cardoza said. “There was a lot of folks that stuck together and in the end, it was the only we could put together a majority to override the veto.”

However, Cardoza said the specialty crop industry could still suffer if lawmakers attempt to reduce mandatory spending on industry priorities by the use of so-called CHIMPS — or changes in mandatory program spending. Appropriators in the House and the Senate can steal dollars from mandatory funding and use them in other programs.

As the farm bill was being negotiated, Cardoza said he went to Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., chairwoman of the agriculture appropriations subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee to secure her commitment to preserve specialty crop funding in appropriations for fiscal year 2009.

“She honored that in the appropriations process, and that doesn’t always happen in Washington,” he said.

The Senate however, did not honor that request and cut millions in their research appropriations for specialty crops.

In a speech to the Washington Public Policy Conference on Sept. 12, DeLauro said the conference process between the House and the Senate appropriations bills will be critical in preserving funds for specialty crop priorities and urged conference attendees to press Senate lawmakers to maintain mandatory specialty crop funding in the 2008 farm bill.

DeLauro said the farm bill improved food stamp benefits, emergency food assistance and expanded the fresh fruit and vegetable snack program.

DeLauro said the 2008 farm bill signaled a new time for long-ignored growers.

“There is a growing consensus we have a national interest in a new kind of agriculture policy — a kind that meets our obligations to consumers, to business and to farmers, and not just to a lucky few,” she said. “For the first time, a coalition came together that said, ‘If our interests are not represented, we are going to vote against it.’”

Noting the government’s $1 billion commitment to expand the fresh fruit and vegetable program over 10 years, DeLauro called the snack program a cornerstone in the effort to create a healthier school food environment.

Cardoza also said the implementation of the programs by the U.S. Department of Agriculture must be monitored closely to ensure that newly funded programs are given proper priority.

Additionally, Cardoza said the industry needs to make sure research projects funded by the Specialty Crop Block Grant program and the Specialty Crop Research Initiative are worthy of taxpayer investments.

“We don’t need the farm bill on 60 Minutes,” he said.

With regard to food safety, Cardoza said he will fight hard for a solution that will be fair to industry and improve foods safety systems while focusing on limiting costs passed on to consumers.

Cardoza urged the industry to come together around a food safety solution.

DeLauro said the failure of what she called an outdated food safety system puts consumers at risks and can undermine an entire industry, she said.

However, she said she is hopeful for progress on the food safety reform.

“There is willingness from both consumers and this industry to identify the threats but also to try to find the right solutions and the political will to correct them,” she said, praising the role of United Fresh in being proactive and shaping the debate.

With 15 different agencies responsible for at least 30 goals related to food safety, DeLauro said it is no wonder “investigations are mismanaged, shortsighted and stalled while dangerous products slip through the cracks,” she said.

She said an appropriations subcommittee hearing on Sept. 17 will be held to evaluate the recent salmonella outbreak investigation.

“Our goal is not to rehash the outbreak, but to work toward potential solutions,” she said.

“We want to make sure what happened to tomato growers doesn’t happen to any other growers and producers,” she said.

DeLauro pledged to explore whether an emergency supplement bill may be a vehicle to provide financial assistance to tomato growers.

She said she is rewriting the Safe Food Act for introduction into Congress next year. The bill would create a single food safety agency, traceability guidelines and food safety standards for the fresh produce supply chain.

She said she is hopeful food safety reform will proceed and will produce a bill protecting consumers and industry.

“I believe the FDA hasn’t been about protecting public health or the industry. (It has) put both in jeopardy and we need to turn that around,” she said. “I believe we are up to the challenge. We just have to sit around the table and hammer it out.”

Lawmakers pledge progress on food safety reform
Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., and Rebecca Wilson of Tom Lange Co. Inc., Springfield, Ill., discuss industry issues Sept. 10 during United Fresh's Washington Public Policy Conference.