(April 24) I was in Washington, D.C., April 15-17. The 90-degree weather in April took the lilt out of the tulips and fruit tree blossoms.

Thankfully, I spent much of my time in a room that Bob Keeney, deputy administrator of fruit and vegetable programs for the Agricultural Marketing Service, said was the only conference room in the U.S. Department of Agriculture building to have a reliable, self-regulated air conditioner.

Room 3501 was the meeting place for the first gathering of the Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee.

The room was stretched to capacity with the 23 participants, plus a dozen or so observers like myself.

The room and space for leadership, amid a group that was selected for just that talent, was somewhat stifled as well.

One of the best things that happened at the meeting was the decision to divide the larger committee into working groups that will have considerably more traction and opportunity for the members’ talents to emerge.

Even so, participants didn’t find it hard to speak up.

Much of the time was devoted to briefing industry members on USDA programs and plans.

In the time open for taking up issues and coalescing the group’s convictions, boosting produce consumption was obviously the biggest agenda item.

However, other issues did arise.

Bruce Peterson, vice president and general merchandise manager for perishables of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Bentonville, Ark., was thoughtful in representing the interests of retailers.

At one point, when the topic turned to country-of-origin labeling, he didn’t hide his opinion.

“The premise that this is a consumer-driven issue seems to fall on deaf ears when we have 40 million consumers per week and I don’t have one letter on my desk about this,’ he said.

“I don’t like to see costs added to the supply chain,” he said, noting that the cost burden will fall directly on suppliers.

Tony DiMare, an officer with DiMare Inc., Homestead, Fla, said there are no big problems among Florida’s retailers concerning that state’s labeling law. However, he wondered if the issue was still viable for discussion, considering the imminent farm bill.

One area the committee immediately targeted for improvement was the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables purchased for domestic feeding programs.

Susan Proden, chief of commodity procurement for the Agricultural Marketing Service’s purchasing programs, said the branch must provide 15.5 cents per lunch in commodities to school districts.

Twenty-seven million meals are eaten by schoolchildren every day, she said.

Normal spending on fruits and vegetables used in school lunches and other federal feeding programs averages $300 million per year, but supplemental funds appropriated by Congress pushed the figure to $617 million last year.

The downside for the fresh produce industry is that only a small portion of that amount was spent on fresh items.

“Out of $616 million, we purchased $33 million fresh,” she said.

That means only 5% out of the mind-boggling total was spent on fresh fruit and vegetable purchases. That hurts.
“Our dilemma and challenge is that we deliver into state warehouses. … Some of them take delivery only once a month,” she said.

That type of limitation handcuffs the USDA on what types of produce it can buy, meaning that apples and potatoes are the staple items in the program.

“That’s the biggest problem in the fresh area: How do we buy?”

Well, with a distinguished committee representing efficient retailers like Wegmans Food Markets Inc., Rochester, and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Bentonville, Ark., surely the USDA can find a better model to boost fresh purchases and deliveries.

If it were up to committee members, the Microbiological Data Program could be endangered.

Robert Epstein, deputy administrator for scientific and technical programs for the USDA and designer of the recently unveiled program, spoke to the committee April 17.

The committee, notably Mahipal Kunduru, director of food safety for Dole Fresh Vegetables Inc., Salinas, Calif., questioned the objective of the program.

He wondered why sprouts and fresh juice, often problematic in food safety outbreaks, weren’t included in the sampling.

As to the objective of the program, Epstein replied that the USDA wants to provide enough data to develop a risk model for the Centers for Disease Control. As for sprouts and fresh juice, he said, the Food and Drug Administration believes it has a good handle on those items already.

Epstein pointed out that the Pesticide Data Program is well supported by the industry since it lends strong science that fresh produce is safe.

“When we first started with the (Pesticide Data Program), it took almost four years for the EPA to figure out what to do with it. Now it is the gold standard of diet risk assessment,“ Epstein said.

However, Kunduru and other members said that collecting samples only at wholesale and retail distribution centers won’t make the data very valuable.

Epstein said that looking at all parts of the supply chain wasn’t possible because of the lack of funds.

“We understand the importance of the (Pesticide Data Program), but pesticides are put on produce, and you expect to find them there,” Kunduru said.

In contrast, any level of microbiological contamination beyond zero will raise red flags and could be distorted.

“I think there is distinction between the two,” he said.