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State Senate to revamp agriculture committee

SACRAMENTO — Promising a “new era in California agriculture policy,” the Democratic-led state Senate today announced a revamped agriculture committee that will put more emphasis on environmental and food safety issues.

The panel, renamed the Committee on Food & Agriculture, will be led by state Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, who has often clashed with the agriculture industry in his drive for more regulations.

“For the first time this committee is not just going to look at the production of food, we’re going to look at the distribution of food and we’re also going to look at the consumption of food,” Florez said.

Florez said his priorities include keeping synthetic fertilizers out of certified organic food, looking at public health impacts of giving antibiotics to farm animals and a review of E. coli contamination in the leafy green industry.

He announced the committee alongside several environmental groups — but not the California Farm Bureau Federation, agriculture’s leading lobbying group in Sacramento. The news brought groans from a leading farm advocate from Fresno, who fears Florez will push costly new rules.

“The committee isn’t going to be valuable if they come out with a bunch of left-wing regulations ... or statements where they tell us how to farm,” said Manuel Cunha, president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League.

By custom, the agriculture committee has in recent years been led by a Republican — one of the few leadership posts reserved for the minority party. Democrats on the committee have traditionally been moderate lawmakers from rural areas.

This year’s group will have a more urban bent, with two liberal Democrats serving under Florez: Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley and Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills. The Republicans are Jeff Denham, R-Merced, and Abel Maldonado, R-Santa Maria, who led the committee last year.

Even with the new make-up, the panel could have a hard time pushing too much change, especially anything that costs taxpayer money. That’s because the Legislature is preoccupied with seeking solutions to close the state’s $40 billion budget deficit through June 2010. Also, farm leaders are confident Republican Gov. Schwarzenegger will not sign off on anything too radical.

Florez last session sought new regulations for leafy green growers, but his bills were blocked by the then-leader of the Assembly Agriculture Committee, Nicole Parra, a moderate Democrat from Hanford who termed out last year.

Another Florez bill supported by raw-milk dairies was vetoed by Schwarzenegger.