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Record numbers of foodborne illnesses in America. Trade interruptions in foreign markets. Contamination of soybean crops by pharmaceutical-grade volunteer corn. These are just a few of the unfortunate situations that the food and agriculture industries have suffered through in the past year. This publicity inspired Farm Journal Media, Philadelphia, to focus its seventh Farm Journal Forum on agriculture's role in the food chain.

U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) discusses trade with Cuba as Sonja Hillgren, executive vice president, Editorial, Farm Journal Media, and William Whitacre, president, Agribusiness Group, J.R. Simplot Company, look on.
Held Dec. 3-4 in Washington, D.C., Farm Journal Forum 2002 brought together food industry experts, producers, agribusiness professionals and government and legislative officials to discuss each segment's stake in the food chain.

The consensus of most presenters with regard to the controversial topics of trade barriers, Country of Origin Labeling, food traceability, and others is that the United States is moving in the right direction to address the many issues facing agriculture and producers. In the words of John Tyson, chairman and CEO of Tyson Foods Inc., Springdale, Ark., "It's progression, not perfection." Tyson stressed that the industry cannot reach perfection overnight but is working toward progress every day.

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) discussed the importance of aggressive trade policy and the opening of trade with Cuba. "It's in our best interest to have as much entrepreneurship and American influence there as possible," Roberts explained. He also pointed out the need to "press ahead" now to ensure America has a position in a post-Castro era.

Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman addressed a wide range of topics impacting agriculture at the seventh Farm Journal Forum.
On a broader scale, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman expressed USDA's support of trade negotiations with countries such as Chile, Singapore and Morocco as well as regional efforts such as the Free Trade Area of the Americas. She said the department is moving toward market maintenance and "working to fight unjustified barriers of trade." Veneman also emphasized the importance of agricultural issues to negotiators for the World Trade Organization.

On our own shores, U.S. producers and agribusinesses are realizing that a parallel shift in the food chain has occurred. Perhaps it was stated best by William J. Whitacre, president, Agribusiness Group, J.R. Simplot Company, when he said what once was "farm to plate" is now "test tube to takeout carton." He explained that the consumer preferences of our nation are dominated by the fast food industry with 46 percent of Americans eating their meals outside of the home. With this kind of change, producers and the agriculture industry have no choice but to listen and adapt to the consumer's demands. "The consumer is king - listen," Whitacre advised forum attendees.

Other complex issues sparked by consumer concerns are traceability in the food supply and labeling. Many feel traceability and labeling are systems that can be attained with the right incentive, while others feel the concepts are far too costly and unmanageable.

Food safety protocols were also a hot topic. At the National Press Club dinner, Mark McClellan, FDA Commissioner, and Elsa Murano, USDA Undersecretary for Food Safety, expressed that a safe food supply is a critical priority for both organizations. Murano pointed out that the two agencies will be working together and reminded those present that there's no one solution and no simple answers to the food safety issues.

Considering all of the crucial issues impacting the food and agriculture industries that were discussed at the Farm Journal Forum, it will be interesting to see how each will evolve in the year to come and the ways Farm Journal Media will cover the outcomes. AM

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