President Obama has responded to questions on food safety, nutrition, the 2012 Farm Bill, agriculture regulations, taxes and immigration from United Fresh Produce, one of America's largest fruit and vegetable lobby groups, representing stakeholders from all parts of the supply chain. GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney also answered the questions, billed by the organization as "Presidential Candidates Respond to Top Produce Industry Priorities."
The produce sector has been a very happy beneficiary of Obama policies. Though USDA still calls fruits and vegetables "specialty crops," the industry stands to sell more product than ever before thanks to the US Department of Agriculture and First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! initiative encouraging Americans to follow the MyPlate campaign and fill half their plates at each meal with fruits and vegetables. The new federal school lunch guidelines also mandate fruits and vegetables at each meal for more than 31 million children getting free and reduced price lunches. United Fresh is one of the co-sponsors of Mrs. Obama's Let's Move Salad Bars to Schools project, an effort to get 6,000 child-sized salad bars donated to public schools.
But at the same time, the produce industry has been responsible for some of the deadliest foodborne disease outbreaks in US history, such as the one with Listeria-tainted cantaloupe that killed 43 people last summer. And United Fresh has been credited by food safety advocates as being the organization that has stood in the way of important government food safety plans (read this editorial from Food Safety News). The White House has also delayed the enactment of the crucial food safety regulations included in the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, which President Obama signed into law in January of 2011. In the months since, the White House's Office of Management and Budget has failed to sign off on the proposed new FDA regulations, which is now the subject of a federal suit against the Obama Administration.
United Fresh and other lobby groups have argued that the proposed regulations--which require produce growers, etc. to pay the costs for inspections and other oversight--are too financially burdensome, and say that the government should cover these costs. The group asks the President who should pay. About 48 million Americans get ill from all foodborne diseases each year, with about 3,000 of these cases being fatal, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
President Obama's United Fresh Produce Q & A
Q: With greater regulatory oversight, and greater investment by the industry into food safety for fresh produce, how can your administration ensure that food safety events (detections, outbreaks, recalls) are conducted in a way that protects public health without imposing crippling costs and liabilities on produce industry companies? Do you believe that food safety programs that are mandated by federal regulations are of benefit to the general public, and therefore should be funded by the federal government?
OBAMA: When I took office, our food safety system needed to be updated – 1 in 4 people were getting sick every year due to food-borne illness, and children and the elderly were more at risk. Each year, foodborne illness affected 48 million Americans, hospitalizing a hundred thousand and killing thousands.
Within my first 100 days in office, I established a Food Safety Working Group to help look at how we can improve America’s food safety system. I also passed the most comprehensive reform of our nation’s food safety laws in decades – giving FDA the resources, authority and tools they need to make real improvements to our food safety system. We are looking for creative ways to coordinate with the food industry and take advantage of modern technology to achieve our food safety goals, including being able to rapidly and effectively trace contaminated foods. We are making it easier for farms of all sizes to reduce their own food safety risks by developing an online tool, which I encourage you to try. It is available at www.onfarmfoodsafety.org.
Effectively managing risk is important to all producers, and having an acceptable food safety program is in the best interest of consumers, buyers, and the farmers themselves. And I am committed to working to ensuring that food safety regulations do not place an unreasonable burden on the food industry.
Ed. note: President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act in December of 2010, which changes federal school lunch policy; the new nutritional guidelines went into effect this Fall.
Q: Will your administration build on these programs [including MyPlate], or would you support a change in nutrition strategy for our nation?
OBAMA: From the classroom to the basketball court, countless Americans enrich their lives and their health by eating right and getting active. Regular physical activity promotes strong mental and physical development, builds lean muscle, and plays an essential role in maintaining a healthy weight. Coupled with nutritious meals, it can help prevent a wide variety of chronic diseases, including cancer, heart disease, and stroke—three leading causes of death in the United States.
I am proud of Michelle’s “Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools” initiative, the USDA’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable (Snack) Program for schools, the USDA’s MyPlate campaign, and other programs that are improving the nutrition of our nation. And I am happy to report that we are making progress. As of July of this year, 3,871 schools were recognized through the HealthierUS Schools Challenge for going the extra mile to increase nutritious food offerings, teach kids about healthy eating, and promote physical activity – surpassing our 2013 goal a year ahead of schedule. Ed. note: The Let's Move! campaign last month claimed this number at more than 4,000
Hundreds of communities across America have signed up for Let’s Move Cities and Towns. Through this program, local leaders are bringing Let’s Move! to their community and making commitments to significant changes that make their communities healthier. And I signed the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act into law that ensures millions of children across the US have access to healthier and more nutritious meals during school.
But there is still more that can be done. In partnership with the private sector, we need to continue encouraging schools to promote healthy eating and ensuring students are offered food and vegetables every day of the week, educating Americans about the benefits of fruits and vegetables, supporting regional food hubs and the establishment of grocery stores in underserved neighborhoods, and researching effective ways to promote healthier food choices
Q: As you weigh farm policy issues, how do you percive the fruit & vegetable industry participating in this debate and crafting a 21st Century agriculture policy? Will you work to maintain those investments in specialty crops and what do you believe is the role of specialty crops in America's future agriculture policy?
OBAMA: Specialty crops are one of the many important components of our agricultural system. Fruits, nuts, vegetables and other similar crops are vital components for the health and well-being of the nation. They also contribute about $18 billion to our economy each year.
That’s why I have endorsed a farm bill that recognizes the diversity of American agriculture and the importance of providing access to healthy foods by supporting programs that focus on fruits, vegetables, nuts and organic crops. I am also committed to seeing these products widely adopted as part of a healthy American diet.
To help families make healthier food choices, my administration has revised the dietary guidelines to reflect the latest science on diet, health and physical activity. And we are ensuring children have access to more nutritious food by bringing more fruits and vegetables into our schools. Today, more than 31 million children participate in the National School Lunch Program and over 11 million participate in the School Breakfast Program. Raising the nutrition standards for programs like these benefit everyone: our children, our families, and our farmers.
Q: Can you shed some light on what the USDA & EPA should and should not be doing from a regulatory point of view? Particularly, what do you believe these two agencies should be doing to ensure their regulatory policies take into account the tools that farmers need to ensure their own competitiveness and the work producers are alread dong t meet consumer demand and be good towards the environment?
OBAMA: I believe strong and prosperous agricultural communities lead to a strong and prosperous America. That’s why I have signed three historic trade agreements with Panama, Colombia, and South Korea which will create tens of thousands of jobs by further increasing exports. I am also expanding regional food markets and have bolstered the number of farmers markets by 53 percent since 2008. Under my leadership, agriculture has been one of the fastest-growing parts of our economy, creating one out of every 12 American jobs.
I know farmers want to work their land; they don’t want to spend days upon days on paperwork. With smart, sustainable policies, we can continue to grow our agricultural economy today and protect our environment for ourselves and our children. That’s why my administration has worked with farmers to identify and reduce regulatory burdens on agricultural producers and streamlined federal oversight of economic activities in rural America.
For example, in return for voluntarily making habitat improvements on their lands, the Federal government will provide landowners with regulatory certainty that they will continue to be able to manage their lands while ensuring the protection of surrounding lands and species. I know that farmers are ultimately the best stewards of our lands and I am committed to working together to find innovative solutions that ensure farmers are competitive in the global market.
Ed. Note: The produce industry relies on immigrant labor. Congress has failed to enact comprehensive immigration reform, despite President Obama's efforts; it was a campaign pledge in 2008. He issued an Executive Order earlier this year under the 'We Cant Wait' campaign to give amnesty under certain conditions to the children of illegal immigrants.
Q: What is your plan to eclipse the rhetoric that has dominated this debate and enact comprehensive immigration reform in the next Congress?
OBAMA: Our immigration system has been broken for too long. I believe in comprehensive reform that strengthens our economy and reflects our values as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants. I support legislation—that until recently had bipartisan support—that would invest in border security, hold employers accountable, demand responsibility from undocumented immigrants while creating a path to legal status, and reform the legal immigration system to attract the best and brightest and keep families together.
And until Congress acts, my administration is taking important steps to secure our borders and enforce our immigration laws in a way that is more fair, efficient, and just. Today, by many measures, the Southwest border is more secure than at any time in the past 20 years. Illegal border crossings are at a 40-year low and the Border Patrol is better staffed than at any time in its 88-year history. For the first time, immigration officials are prioritizing the deportation of criminals, rather than young people who were brought here illegally through no fault of their own and are pursuing an education.
Q: Would you be an advocate in urging Congress to extend the current estate tax policy? If not, what is the tax rate and exemption amount you support?
OBAMA: I am calling on Congress to extend the middle class tax cuts for the 98 percent of Americans making less than $250,000 for another year. In fact, my proposal extends tax cuts for 97 percent of all small business owners in America. But at the same time, we need to ask the wealthiest to pay their fair share. I remain opposed to the extension of tax cuts for those with household incomes above $250,000 and support the return of the estate tax exemption and rates to 2009 levels, which would return the top tax rate on estates to 45 percent and reinstate the $7 million per-couple estate tax exemption. This would exempt all but the wealthiest 3 in 1,000 decedents from tax. Together, these proposals would reduce our deficit by $968 billion over 10 years.
*Download President Obama's response [PDF]
*Download Romney's response [PDF]
*Photo by Christopher Dilts/Obama for America