The saying goes that change is the only thing that is constant. That certainly is the case in the produce industry where businesses are always looking to streamline processes and introduce new products to the market. Since my agency -- the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) -- provides services that facilitate marketing opportunities for the industry, it is imperative for us to be nimble and constantly look for ways to strengthen our connection with industry leaders. One of the ways we do this is by attending conferences like last week’s United Fresh Convention & Expo in Chicago, Ill.
The convention brings together the entire produce supply chain, much like our agency does. In fact, USDA Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Ed Avalos joined us on the trip, getting a chance to meet with key stakeholders like our suppliers for the USDA Foods Program. When he walked the trade floor or stopped by our booth, many people also asked him about our agency’s grant programs and even how AMS puts together our transportation market reports. Outside of the convention, he got a chance to see our Specialty Crop Inspection (SCI) Division employees in action as they inspected goods at a local produce market. He also used the trip to talk about the value of the agency’s Market News reports during a visit to the nearby CME Group.
One of the main reasons I attended the convention was to continue my agency’s outreach efforts to educate the industry about upcoming changes. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) laws will become final later this summer and in the fall. Since FSMA will make significant changes to the country’s food safety laws, including the first-ever regulation of fresh produce, it’s imperative that the produce industry becomes familiar with the laws.
To help out on this front, SCI Audit Services Branch Chief Ken Petersen gave a presentation to the United Fresh Food Safety and Technology Council to talk about our Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) Audit Program. He discussed ways for AMS to benchmark our GAPS Program against the Produce Safety Rule. He also attended the Food Marketing Institute Food Safety Committee Meeting, following up on a food safety webinar we recently co-produced with this organization.
Petersen also participated in a panel that looked at the challenges of on-farm GAPs certification and ways to improve the process. The group was fortunate to hear the keynote address from FDA Deputy Commissioner for Food and Veterinary Medicine Mike Taylor, who gave a first-hand perspective on the way his agency views third-party audits. FDA’s strategy for compliance with the Produce Safety Rule will incorporate the use of third-party audits. Their agency believes programs such as the AMS GAPs Program will play a key role.
As I look back on my experience at the 2015 United Fresh Convention & Expo, I am thankful for a number of things: connecting with key stakeholders, educating the industry about upcoming changes, and sampling tasty new products. Most importantly, I am proud of the way this conference highlights the many ways AMS supports the produce industry. I encourage everyone to visit our Fruit and Vegetable Program website to see how we can help out your business.