Specialty Crop Competitiveness Act of 2003 may not appear as a huge response to industry needs, says Matt McInerney, executive vice president of the Western Growers Association.

The importance, McInerney says is that this marks “the first time government programs have been geared to help the specialty crop industry. We at least got assistance with conservation and other items,” he said during the recent Texas Produce Association Annual Convention in South Padre Island.”

He said the debate began in 2002, led by the Fresh Fruit And Vegetable Association. He hopes it's a starting point for more comprehensive assistance.

“A more formal approach is coming with the Produce Bill,” he said. “That proposal will focus on the needs of the fruit and vegetable industry, many of which have not received attention from the U.S. Congress. These issues also would provide long-term benefits to consumers and include a number of nutrition components.”

McInerney said the effort has widespread support throughout the industry. “We've been working on this bill for four or five months and we hope to have it introduced in Congress (perhaps this fall). He says the proposal has national security implications.

“An abundant supply of safe food is essential (to national security) and fruits and vegetables are essential part of the process.”

In its current form, the bill would include the following six titles:

1. Specialty crop block grants to states, about $500 million a year.

Agricultural marketing service to include marketing orders and promotion programs.

International trade, including a credit program for market development assistance.

Crop research to include crop protection studies into such problems as finding alternatives to methyl bromide. Also, scientists will look at food quality and taste.

Pest and disease exclusives. This title would provide a revolving fund for APHIS for pest eradication programs. APHIS budget would increase.

A domestic specialty crop policy title would include food safety, trade practices and establish intellectual property rights.

McInerney said the program would provide new tools to the industry. He said two congressmen from California, one Republican and one Democrat, have agreed to sponsor the bill. “We're looking for other sponsors from other states. We're also working with state departments of agriculture for their support. We want a broad base of co-sponsorship.”

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com