I spent several days last month in Washington, D.C., meeting with regulators and legislators about our industry’s priority issues, including food safety, nutrition policy and immigration reform.

New times require a new government approach

Bryan Silbermann
Produce Marketing Association

While this visit wasn’t anything out of the ordinary — PMA staff and our members are regulars in D.C. — I was struck by what is changing, and necessarily so.

New times are at hand, and they call for a new approach.

The now year-old Obama administration promised greater involvement and transparency, something we’d all like to see more of from government.

That will allow us to have a very different kind of relationship with government, which holds great potential for our industry.

But rather than waiting for the promised change, it behooves us to do our part to make it happen today — especially given the increasing government interest in our business we are now experiencing.

Later this year, Congress will pass comprehensive food safety reform legislation, which the Food and Drug Administration will in turn implement.

Meanwhile, FDA is finalizing food safety guidance for several produce commodities and gathering information to update industry good agricultural practices.

Also on the slate are reauthorization of federal child nutrition programs, climate change and immigration reform. By year’s end, work may begin on the next farm bill.

Some of this attention we invite, and some of it we may fear.

For many industries, the historical approach to government relations has been combative.

However, that approach is simply not the best path for our industry, something I spoke to in my State of the Industry presentation at Fresh Summit last October.

We can no longer expect to avoid oversight, especially on issues like food safety.

Involvement

Indeed, as an industry we’ve been reaching out to government at the state and federal level to take a larger role, to ensure food safety standards are met and consumer confidence is restored.

Increased government regulation is our new reality.

The best way to ensure smart oversight of our industry is to collaborate with those who govern us.

Our best approach is not to be defensive today, but to be open and transparent so that we can protect — and create — our tomorrows.

Our experience in 2009 demonstrates that this approach can be effective. For example, as we worked to ensure that legislators and regulators had the best information possible as they considered measures affecting our industry, we found them open and receptive to our input.

We plan to amplify this collaborative approach in our activities in 2010. This is the same philosophy that you have historically seen PMA bring to our work, bringing the supply chain together to collaborate on issues of common interest or to provide community via PMA events like Fresh Summit.

This year our work will include continuing to improve industry relationships with government, and to more widely share our staff and industry’s technical expertise.

The food safety team, led by Bob Whitaker, has just been strengthened by the addition of Johnna Hepner, who brings her leadership and technical skills honed at Markon to bear across the broad spectrum of PMA’s membership.

Shortly, we’ll also add a new vice president to fill shoes vacated by Gary Fleming.

We’ll take our experts to Washington, and we will bring Washington to us, just as we welcomed FDA commissioner Peggy Hamburg to PMA’s home state of Delaware last fall to visit family farms.

We’ll seek to partner with government whenever possible, such as the country-of-origin-labeling Web seminar we’re hosting on Jan. 19 with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to reach industry.

With the broad range of critical issues likely to see action in 2010 — a congressional election year, to boot — it is critically important to be sure your voice is heard too.

If you aren’t already interacting with your senators and representative on a regular basis, I encourage you to get engaged now. Your state and national associations can provide tools to help with that outreach.

By becoming an advocate for your industry, you can help improve the likelihood that future, often far-reaching regulation and legislation will consider the realities of your business.

Ultimately, this collaborative type of approach has benefits — both individually for you and your business, and collectively for our industry.

When we better protect consumers, for example, we protect our own companies and encourage increased consumption.

With the busy year that lies ahead of us, that’s change we should all be able to support.

Bryan Silbermann is president and chief executive officer of the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del. This is the first in a series of monthly columns written by PMA staff on important industry issues.

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