Opinion: Balancing Budget Misery

The magic number for this year’s legislative session, which opens March 2, is $2.2 billion. This is the budget hole that must be plugged as lawmakers again grapple with a colossal revenue shortage in the state.

Legislators will be looking for ways to close that gap, with user fees as one likely source. Working with the Ag Coalition, one of FFVA’s priorities will be to ensure growers aren’t the victims of new or higher fees. Given the increase over the past several years in the cost of everything from fuel to fertilizer to food safety, Florida’s growers simply can’t afford additional costs.

Through the Ag Coalition, FFVA also is supporting a bill that wraps up several of our priorities. A key provision in the bill would prohibit duplicative regulation. County governments would not be permitted to regulate farm activities that already fall under best management practices or are already regulated by federal or state agencies, including water management districts. In addition, under the bill, counties could not levy a stormwater fee on farm land if the operation already has a permit from certain agencies, or if it follows BMPs.

Talking Tomatoes

FFVA also is backing House Bill 69, which revises the state’s existing food safety program for tomatoes. Several years ago, Florida tomato growers became the first in the produce industry to develop a voluntary food safety program, with the guidelines becoming law last July. This bill would give the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which is charged with conducting inspections to ensure the regulations are being followed, the necessary authority for enforcement. The measure is especially timely, because the FDA has said federal regulation for fresh produce will happen this year. Florida’s program could — and should — serve as a model for the rest of the country.

We also will be working to make sure that UF/IFAS receives adequate funding and that there’s not a replay of last year’s run on its budget.

Tracking Traceability

As it moves toward food safety legislation, the FDA held a two-day meeting in December to discuss and solicit public comment on traceability for all foods, including fruits and vegetables.

Held jointly with the USDA Food Safety and Information Service (FSIS), the agency sought to identify elements of effective traceability systems, identify gaps, and suggest specific mechanisms for improvements, according to an FDA news release.

“This public meeting provides an opportunity for FDA to collaborate more closely with FSIS as well as with members of the food industry, many of whom have been making important innovations in food safety practices and technology, and all of whom bear primary responsibility for producing and marketing safe food,” said Michael R. Taylor, senior advisor to FDA’s Commissioner Margaret Hamburg.

Presenters at the sessions included representatives from throughout the food supply chain, in addition to those from FDA, FSIS, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Representatives from the United Fresh Produce Association and Produce Marketing Association both testified about the status of the industry led effort, the Produce Traceability Initiative. Representatives of Costco, Darden, and General Mills provided a perspective from the retail level.

Mike Aerts, FFVA director of marketing and membership, attended the meeting to monitor the discussion. Although a lot of information was presented about where things stand now, Aerts says, little new was offered. “I was hoping that there would be more in the way of new information and discussion of the specific directions we need to be heading,” he says. “Traceability will be part of whatever food safety legislation comes out of Congress in 2010, and it would be helpful to have a better idea of what the regulations are going to look like as early in the process as possible.”

The FDA also is seeking written comment on a number of questions related to traceability, according to a Nov. 3 Federal Register notice (Read the notice at www.fsis.usda.gov). The questions cover topics such as what kind of information should be included in a food-tracing system, how records should be kept, and the costs of implementing such a system.

The deadline for filing comments is March 3. FFVA plans to solicit information from its members and compile that into its comments.

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