As Western pistachio farmers and processors engaged in a full-court press last fall to harvest and process an all-time record crop, Congress successfully nailed a half-court shot that will net stricter food safety regulations on crops grown in the United States.

“Things that happen in the halls of Congress can and will have an even bigger impact than just about anything else in your operation,” said Richard Matoian, executive director of the Western Pistachio Association (WPA). “Whether it’s food safety, legislation, regulation, immigration, or pesticide regulation, any of these issues can affect you.”

Decisions rendered far from the fields of agriculture continually impact farmers and ranchers — and that will not change. Attorneys who represent the WPA in the California Legislature and Congress laid out a mind-numbing list of issues during the recent U.S. Pistachio Conference that will impact the industry and agriculture overall for years to come.

On national and international issues, Bob Schramm of Schramm, Williams, and Associates based in Washington, D.C., praised the Iran Sanctions Act passed by Congress for the law’s positive impact on the U.S. pistachio industry. Iran is the largest pistachio producer in the world followed by the United States. The law prohibits the sale of Iranian pistachios and other products in the U.S. 

The WPA is part of a coalition representing agriculture as Congress prepares to pare down federal spending in the 2012 farm bill. One program likely to face fiscal reduction is the federal Market Access Program (MAP).

MAP uses Commodity Credit Corporation funds to assist U.S. producers, exporters, private companies, and other trade organizations in promotional activities for U.S. agricultural products. More than 30 commodities are supported by MAP dollars ranging from pistachios to grapes to catfish.

“MAP is truly under attack because of the deficit and the debt,” Schramm said. “At some point we will have to look at taking a hit on MAP in my opinion. I think there is a 50-50 chance it won’t happen until the 2012 farm bill is enacted.”

The 2010 FDA Food Safety Modernization Act or FSMA signed into law by President Obama last December painted a target on the back of pistachios and other crops. The Food and Drug Administration, USDA, and the Department of Homeland Security are charged with writing the law’s regulations to improve food safety in commodities.

“The regulations will be very comprehensive,” Schramm noted. “We will comment on these regulations to make sure they don’t make operating under the new law too difficult and counterproductive.”

In part, the regulations will place commodities into food safety high and low risk groups. Leafy greens, for example, are expected to fall into the high risk group.

“We want to make sure the pistachio is a low risk food,” Schramm said.

Agriculture should sleep with one eye open as the regulations are developed. Typically bureaucrats write regulations based on the groundwork laid out by U.S. House and Senate committee reports, plus a joint House-Senate report. The FSMA lacks the House-Senate report.

“It’s broadly written so we will have to watch this very carefully,” Schramm noted.