TAMARA LUSH

Associated Press

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) -- U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said Friday that immigration reform and Americans' food prices are linked, and said citizens should urge their members of Congress to enact reform soon.

Speaking to representatives from several farm and agriculture groups from around Florida, Vilsack echoed remarks repeatedly made by President Obama: that bipartisan immigration reform is needed.

Vilsack told reporters gathered at the University of South Florida in Tampa that 50 percent of Americans' food -- whether it's in the planting, picking or processing stage -- is touched by an immigrant's hands.

If immigrants are taken out of the equation, food prices will go up, he said.

"If you are fine with that, great," he said, adding that the other option is to import more food and possibly compromise food safety standards.

"If you have trouble with Hugo Chavez providing your oil, how do you feel about him providing your food?" he asked.

Enacting immigration reform will help to keep food prices low and food quality safer, Vilsack said.

"It's a very toxic political issue to discuss," he said. "Frankly at some point, both sides in Washington will have to come up and say you know what, in this issue, we're not going to play the Washington game."

It was Vilsack's first visit to Florida since he was sworn in as agriculture secretary in January of 2009.

He held a discussion with leaders from around the state, including the Florida Farm Bureau, Florida Citrus Mutual and the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association.

Several farmer representatives told Vilsack that invasive species are among the biggest problems facing Florida's farmers.

Michael Sparks, the executive vice president and CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual, says the Asian Citrus Psyllid is a bug that has the potential to cause a crisis in the domestic orange and grapefruit crop.

"All citrus growers are concerned," said Sparks. "It's critical for the USDA and Congress to allocate resources."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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