WASHINGTON -- For most people in the fresh-foods business, the face of the new Bush administration was perhaps best represented in Ann M. Veneman.
As the new secretary of agriculture, Veneman quickly laid out a six-point set of goals for her tenure, including a priority on food safety, more industry input, better consumer education and USDA policy based on sound scientific research.
Among the several steps the agency took as a show of good faith, USDA created a permanent Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee, charging the panel with helping the government examine the full spectrum of issues faced by grower/shippers, and others in the distribution chain. The 20-member group even reserved two seats for retailers.
Then came Sept. 11, and the spotlight on partnerships took on new urgency as USDA, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services called on industry associations and companies themselves to assist in formulating a tighter security net around the nation's food supply.
For, amid the dust of destruction, another cloud suddenly lifted to reveal years of underfunding and budget cuts, and expose the lack of manpower and resources at USDA, FDA and HHS. Public concern moved the White House and Congress to agree on significant increases for the agencies -- at last count, the proposed figure for FDA had hit $1.4 billion, enough to hire more than 300 more imported- and domestic-food inspectors.
The scramble to shore up the nation's flagging food-safety and security network didn't mean lesser initiatives were dropped. In what's become almost an annual event, the push continued all year for country-of-origin labeling for meat and produce. Retailers have long opposed the measure, fearing it will create additional labor and more paperwork, while grower/shippers eager to promote domestic production are lobbying hard for the idea. Similarly, the USDA early this year floated a proposal to beef up nutrition labels on meat and poultry, so that they would include more data on fat, calorie and cholesterol content. The plan, part of a government effort to boost low levels of compliance for voluntary guidelines already in place, was initially met with lukewarm support by the nation's meat suppliers.
Congress and the new administration spent the autumn months locking horns over the farm bill, closely watched by all segments of the agriculture industry. The legislation, primarily a policy- and program-setting document, dictates how the USDA spends or loans some $60 billion every year.
And finally, the FDA released the 2001 Model Food Code in early December. Updated every two years by the Conference for Food Protection, the government's food-safety blueprint includes changes and clarifications regarding fresh juices, the storing and merchandising of eggs, roast beef cooking procedures, hand-washing practices, and the shelf life of ready-to-eat foods, among others.