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Produce groups see early window for immigration reform

WASHINGTON — Just weeks after suffering the latest disappointment in passing a 2012 farm bill extension, the produce industry is set to take on an ambitious list of priorities from immigration reform to food safety in 2013.

“Immigration reform is at the top of the list,” said Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, based in Maitland, FL. “Following the election last fall, there is renewed interest in pursuing immigration reform.”

Produce groups are working in a broad coalition and reaching out to lawmakers who are interested in moving forward with immigration reform legislation and helping the agriculture industry maintain a legal workforce.

“Whenever you talk to members, the most important issue they face is the uncertainty of the workforce,” Mr. Stuart added.

According to news reports, Obama administration officials plan to start pushing for immigration reform this month before the debt ceiling and budget cut battle takes center stage in March. A bipartisan group of senators is crafting legislation, though it’s unclear how broad the reform proposal may be.

“The window [for action] is clearly the first half of this year,” said Ken Barbic, federal government affairs director at Western Growers Association, based in Irvine, CA, who added that if there is a comprehensive reform bill, an agricultural worker fix will be part of it.

After a bruising battle over the farm bill earlier this month, agriculture producers will work on getting a five-year farm bill passed before the end of the year.

Specialty crop programs fared well in the House and Senate measures, and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), chairman of the powerful Senate Agriculture Committee, is eager to move ahead with legislation, Mr. Stuart said.

The top stumbling points remain cuts to federal feeding programs and changes in commodity subsidies and dairy program supports. A new player in the debate will be Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), who is the newly designated top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, replacing Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS).

Another top issue for the industry is gauging the impact of the Food & Drug Administration’s food-safety rules, which were released Jan. 4, and helping to shape the final measures.

The public has until May 16 to comment on the two regulations and will likely participate in three public meetings that FDA is planning to hold around the country in the coming months.

The industry is still combing through the more than 1,000 pages of preventive controls and produce-safety regulations that were required by the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, said Mr. Barbic. “That’s going to be a large focus” in 2013, he said.

Tom O’Brien, Washington lobbyist for the Produce Marketing Association, said that the industry will be looking closely at FDA’s carve-out of small farms among the long list of provisions in the produce-safety regulation.

The FDA partially exempts small farms if they have average food sales of less than $500,000 during the previous three years and sell at least one-half of crops directly to consumers or retail establishments located in the same state or not more than 275 miles away from the farm.

If Congress can’t fix the small farm exemption championed by Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), buyers should be asking their suppliers to meet the FSMA law regardless of size, said Ray Gilmer of the United Fresh Produce Association.

While commodity groups will be taking a hard look at the two regulations, FDA is expected to propose other regulations under FSMA this year. FDA plans to release a new proposed regulation that will spell out a new foreign supplier verification program, the third-party audit accreditation standards, and new safety standards for animal feed and pet food.

On top of the ambitious list, Mr. Barbic said that WGA is still working on the issue of how the health care reform law will affect coverage of seasonal agricultural workers.

Mr. Barbic said that he spent New Year’s Day flipping channels between football and CSPAN, an indication this year is likely to be a busy one in Congress.