WASHINGTON, D.C. — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack pledged the USDA’s commitment to increase fruit and vegetable consumption among children in his keynote remarks to the Washington Public Policy Conference.

In turn, he asked the industry to consider investing 5% of its marketing dollars to invest in public service ads that will help influence behavior.

Vilsack plays up USDA mission to promote produce consumption

Tom Karst

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack delivered the keynote address on Sept. 10 to the United Fresh Produce Association's Washington Public Policy Conference, stressing the Obama Administration's commitment to increasing fruit and vegetable consumption among children.

“You are ambassadors for healthy living, and you need to help us get that message out to 300 million Americans,” he said Sept. 10 at the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association annual lobbying event.

Vilsack also revealed USDA’s plans to promote locally grown food through a new initiative called “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food.”

Vilsack’s message was well received, said Brendan Comito, board member of United Fresh and chief operations officer for Capital City Fruit Co., Norwalk, Iowa.

“He was really talking the language of our industry and definitely seemed committed to increase consumption, which is a big part of what we’d like to see the USDA do,” Comito said.

More than once, Vilsack noted the importance and relevance of healthy eating to meaningful health care reform.

“If we meet the daily allowances, we will do a better job of reducing health care costs,” Vilsack told attendees.

Food safety was perhaps the biggest issue at the conference, and Comito said the industry came away from the event wondering what type of food safety rules will eventually be passed by Congress.

In particular, the industry is eager to know what type of food safety exemptions, if any, will be provided small and organic growers.

“I think the biggest question of the conference is what level of growers does the food safety regulations go down to,” Comito said. “That definitely was a question coming out of the conference.”

Ray Gilmer, vice president of communications for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh, said attendance was up by more than 120 people compared with a year ago.

Considering the sluggish economy, Comito said the record attendance of more than 450 for the conference was a testament to the importance of the issues facing the industry.

“This was by far the most productive conference we’ve had,” Comito said.

He said the Management Resource Center — which allowed vendors of industry solutions for food safety and traceability to be available to attendees during breaks — also was successful.

On Capitol Hill visits Sept. 10, Comito said attendees focused on food safety legislation, expansion of salad bars in schools, the Mexican truck situation and card-check legislation.

Many members of the United Fresh board of directors were able to tour the White House garden on Sept. 11, he said.

Tom Stenzel, president of United Fresh, said the conference meeting at FDA offices on Sept. 10 and the address by FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg seemed to reveal a more aggressive posture of the agency toward food safety regulation.

“You get a very strong feeling of an activist approach, which is different than what we have seen in the past,” he said.

For example, FDA officials have indicated they are significantly increasing their sampling of fresh produce for pathogen testing. The agency’s reportable food registry is also new to the industry, and new guidance for traceability may also be coming.

Coming out of the policy conference, Stenzel said food safety will remain a focal point of Congress this fall.

“I think Sen. Tom Harkin clearly wants to do something on food safety, and you are likely to see something develop through Harkin’s committee (Senate Health),” Stenzel said.