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Cranberry Growers Seek Visibility in Farm Bill, Dietary Guideline Debates

Cranberry farmers turned part of Union Station into a bog Tuesday in a bid by a growers’ cooperative to draw congressional attention to the tart fruit.

With the shutdown of federal museums and other popular sites in the District, the 2,000 pounds of floating berries also may become a new must-see destination for idling tourists — though they will have to hurry because the setup comes down after 4 p.m. Wednesday.

The bog is also an example of how even the lesser-known sectors of the nation’s agricultural economy are coming forward to press lawmakers for action on replacing the now-expired farm bill, in this case to help boost overseas sales after U.S. cranberry surpluses depressed market prices.

Randy Papadellis, president and CEO of Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc., said he hopes to draw staffers and lawmakers to Union Station, where they can see a simulated harvest, visit with farmers and talk with the co-op’s policy experts.

Papadellis is focused on three areas of federal policy: trade promotion to open new markets for cranberry products; getting the Agriculture Department to buy up price-depressing surplus cranberries; and an exception for cranberry products under the federal dietary guidelines that sets the bar on the daily level of “added sugars” in food.

“In general, what we’re trying to do is heighten the visibility of cranberries and the cranberry industry to a very important constituency of ours, government and people who work with government,” Papadellis said.

Last year, cranberry farmers in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Washington state, Wisconsin and British Columbia, Canada, grossed a record $2.2 billion in sales and netted $338 million in proceeds. Ocean Spray also has opened operations in Chile.

Under the now-expired farm bill (PL 110-246), agricultural groups receive federal funding to open markets for U.S. products in other countries. Papadellis said having a new multi-year farm bill with funding for trade promotion “is a very important step for our industry.”

Growing new markets would help when there are big harvests such as in 2012. The cranberry industry is currently dealing with low market prices because of the surplus.

“We’d be very appreciative of any USDA purchases of cranberries as an industry, not necessarily from Ocean Spray,” Papadellis said.

In the past, the department bought dried cranberries, cranberry sauce and cranberry juice when there have been surpluses. In May, the department bought $5 million in cranberry concentrate. The department also steps in periodically to buy up meat, vegetables and fruit when production exceeds demand and market prices fall. Generally food products are distributed for use in school lunches and by food pantries.

A top concern for Ocean Spray owner-members and other cranberry groups is the federal government’s efforts to address the role of sugar in the U.S. diet.

Papadellis says the Agriculture Department’s school meal guidelines suggested limits on sugar intake overlook the antioxidants, vitamins and other health benefits cranberries provide. Because of their mouth-puckering tartness, cranberries require a lot of added sugar to make them palatable.

“Unfortunately when we [sweeten the fruit], we get trapped into some of this debate on added sugars. We’re just trying to raise the visibility of cranberries being unique. On a per-ounce basis, cranberries may be more nutrient than almost any fruit you can get out there,” Papadellis said. “The real issue is the other beverages with sugar, how much nutrients are you bringing in.”

Earlier this year, cranberry growers got a reprieve for dried cranberries under the Agriculture Department’s nutrition standards for school lunch and breakfast meals. The department in an interim final rule in June allowed exemptions for total sugar standards for dried whole fruits or vegetables; dried whole fruit or vegetable pieces; dehydrated fruits or vegetables with no added nutritive sweeteners; and dried fruits with nutritive sweeteners that are required for processing and/or palatability purposes.

“My primary concern is that many of other customer constituencies will look to those USDA guidelines to make their own decision on what is healthy and what isn’t. We want to make sure our government isn’t sending the wrong signals about cranberries,” he said.

Papadellis said his industry is trying to win similar leeway for cranberry juice cocktail.

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