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Omnibus spending bill contains $20 million boost to combat citrus greening

WASHINGTON -- A catch-all spending bill for the federal government includes one-time funding of $20 million to fight citrus greening, one of the many provisions tucked in a bill expected to be signed by President Obama.

The massive fiscal 2014 Omnibus bill includes funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food & Drug Administration, two government agencies that oversee a range of food-related policies that affect the produce industry.

The bill provides the Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service with $20 million for "multi-agency coordination involving the citrus industry, federal and state regulatory personnel, and researchers to combat the spread and eventual eradication of citrus greening."

Congress is directing APHIS to use reimbursable and cooperative agreements with federal and state entities to respond to the growing threat. USDA is also directed to provide the House and Senate Appropriations Committees with a spending plan for the $20 million, which must be spent by Sept. 30, 2015, within 90 days of the bill's enactment.

"We appreciate all of the hard work Congressman Rooney and Senator Nelson put into securing these funds," Andrew Meadows, communications director for Florida Citrus Mutual, told The Produce News. "To beat HLB, we are going to have to continue to receive the USDA's full commitment, and certainly this budget carve-out goes a long way in making sure the partnership between the USDA and the U.S citrus industry remains strong."

The bill also directs USDA to include in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children a range of fruits and vegetables that appears targeted at white potatoes.

USDA issued a rule excluding white potatoes for WIC vouchers after an Institute of Medicine report found young children are already consuming more than the recommended amount of starchy vegetables and consume more potatoes than any other fruit or vegetable.

Congressional supporters, such as Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) stepped in and attached an amendment to the spending bill that required USDA not to exclude the vegetable.

The bill said it expects USDA to "include all varieties of fresh, whole or cut vegetables, except for vegetables with added sugars, fats, oils; provided that inclusion of such vegetables contribute towards meeting the special nutritional needs of program participants and increases the availability of low-cost, high-nutrient alternatives for participants throughout the year."

USDA has 15 days to explain its policy decision to Congress if it does not comply with this requirement.

The National Potato Council said members of Congress and their staff who have taken a close look at the issue have urged USDA to reverse its policy.

"This action sends a clear message to USDA that it is obligated to base its nutritional policy on the latest nutritional science, which calls for an increase in starchy vegetable consumption for all Americans, including WIC mothers and children," Mark Szymanski, spokesman for NPC, told The Produce News.

The funding bill also provides a $53 million increase for FDA to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act.

Along with new funding comes report language asking FDA to implement a comprehensive training program for inspectors, and to ensure food safety rules are risk-based and "economically feasible to both the agency and the industry."