(Nov. 24, 3:44 p.m.) Produce shippers and distributors selling commodities to the U.S. Department of Agriculture are exempt from a final rule issued in mid-November requiring contractors and subcontractors to begin using the E-Verify system by early next year.

Industry leaders were alarmed that a June 12 proposed rule relating to E-Verify and federal contractors might apply to fresh produce distributors providing commodities to federal feeding programs. That, they worried, could cause problems for an industry that still leans heavily on undocumented immigrant workers.

E-Verify is a Web-based system operated by the Department of Homeland Security in partnership with the U.S. Social Security Administration that allows employers to electronically check employment eligibility.

However, Jimmie Turner, spokesman for the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, said Nov. 18 federal feeding programs were exempt.

“We’re exempt and we don’t have to use E-Verify,” Turner said.

He explained the Federal Acquisition Regulation provided an exemption to AMS for “off the shelf” items, including all USDA purchases of commodity products.

“We think (exempting produce shippers) is the right decision,” said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C.

“It seems very clear that much of agriculture is exempted,” said Nancy Foster, president of the U.S. Apple Association, Vienna, Va. “This is a victory for agriculture.”

Foster said the Bush administration apparently heard concerns from produce industry leaders, particularly that “buy American” provisions of federal feeding programs may have been difficult to comply with if the rule was imposed on agricultural suppliers.

Still, she said the E-Verify rules for contractors were only one part of the assault against the industry, including the “no match” Social Security Numbers rule and tightening enforcement of immigration laws. At the same time, she said the Bush administration might soon announce a final revision of the H-2A guest worker program, which could benefit agricultural employers.