CAPITOL HILL

A big group of industry figures went to Washington last week to see if the new crop of minds on Capitol Hill could be influenced when it comes to critical industry issues.The occasion for the pilgrimage was the Food Marketing Institute's Public Affairs Assembly. (See related story, Page 4.) The specific motivation driving the event was the fact that the 104th Congress represents new opportunity for

A big group of industry figures went to Washington last week to see if the new crop of minds on Capitol Hill could be influenced when it comes to critical industry issues.

The occasion for the pilgrimage was the Food Marketing Institute's Public Affairs Assembly. (See related story, Page 4.) The specific motivation driving the event was the fact that the 104th Congress represents new opportunity for the industry, since 98 brand-new members have arrived in the form of 87 House members and 11 senators. In all, that means there is something of a blank slate upon which industry viewpoints can be impressed before the legislature has too much of a chance to act for good or ill. So a good-sized contingent representing a wide spectrum of the industry -- from the biggest retail chains to major wholesalers to small independent operators and state trade associations -- formed to participate in the lobbying effort.

Here's a quick look at some of the issues that were the focus of last week's activity. And, as is so often the case, the issues are complex and the industry's view is often open to wide interpretation.

Cardboard Bailers and Compactors: This issue is nettlesome to the industry because many supermarket operators have been cited under Department of Labor orders that prohibit employees under the age of 18 from operating bailers or compactors. Compactors and bailers, of course, are the machines that compress and bind used cardboard. Many retailers have been fined lately under provisions of the age-related orders, and at the rate of $10,000 per violation.

The intent of the 41-year-old regulation was to protect youngsters from the considerable hazard that the machines have posed. The current assertion is that the machines aren't hazardous because safety interlocks and key-operated switches eliminate the hazard of amputation that earlier existed. Assuming that's universally the case, the order certainly should be set aside.

Welfare Reform: Here's an especially charged issue. No one could argue with the premise that individual responsibility should be increased and fraud reduced wherever it exists. But it can't be overlooked that welfare and food-assistance programs put cash and cash equivalents into the hands of consumers who otherwise would have much less. Quite apart from humanitarian considerations, the programs channel a good deal of new money into supermarkets.

Some of the direct programs actually cost very little in the context of the federal government's spending, but the funds blip brightly on the industry's radar screen. Consider food stamps: They cost $24.5 billion last year and helped some 27 million consumers. Assuming that most of the program's outlays were properly used for the purchase of foodstuffs, that program alone represents a significant percentage of the net national spending on grocery products. Last year's total grocery sales amounted to a little less than $400 billion. PACA: The Perishable Agriculture Commodities Act is a 65-year-old law, but age hasn't prevented a lot of angst from surrounding it lately. In brief summary, PACA provisions stipulate acceptance terms for produce shipments and mandate payment terms. Many in the industry see its requirements as archaic.

A bill has been introduced that would repeal the act outright; another has been introduced that would reform it substantially. Many industry trade associations had their people on Capitol Hill last week to testify before hearings on the matter called by a subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture. Generally, those associations with retail or wholesaler members are for repeal; those representing commodity groups are for reform. This issue seems clear enough: Elemental fairness mandates that PACA repeal should proceed. After all, what other commodity group is surrounded by such entitlements? So, while no one knows what the industry presence in Washington might have accomplished last week, or whether the new incumbents were impressed with industry logic, there's no doubt that the American right to petition the government is alive, well and being vociferously exercised.