FarmPolicy

April 18, 2014

Food Safety; Policy Issues; Ag Economy; Climate Issues- EPA; and Political Notes

Food Safety

Reuters writer Christopher Doering reported yesterday that, “Passing food safety reform legislation this year is a ‘priority’ for the Senate, said a spokesman for Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, as Congress feels pressure from consumer groups to act following the latest recall to highlight weaknesses in the system.

“‘It has been and will continue to be a priority,’ said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Reid. ‘I hope to have the bill on the floor this work period,’ he said.

“Congress returns from its summer recess in mid-September for a few weeks with a heavy workload before lawmakers leave to campaign for the pivotal November elections.”

Mr. Doering indicated that, “Still, the massive salmonella outbreak that sparked a recall of more than a half billion eggs from two Iowa plants in August could provide momentum for the Senate to act on its own food safety bill soon after it returns this month. The House passed food reform legislation in July 2009.

“‘This incident exemplifies the critical need to make significant improvements in the food safety system,’ said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

“‘We must pass the food safety legislation currently before Congress that will help FDA prevent outbreaks like this one in the future,’ he said.”

Alison Young reported yesterday at USA Today Online that, “U.S. Department of Agriculture staff regularly on site at two Iowa egg processors implicated in a national salmonella outbreak were supposed to enforce rules against the presence of disease-spreading rodents and other vermin, federal regulations show.

Though USDA says its authority was limited, the agency’s egg graders were at Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms at least 40 hours a week — including before the outbreak — inspecting the size and quality of eggs inside processing buildings.”

The article noted that, “Food safety watchdogs question whether USDA egg graders should have noticed the vermin problems cited by the FDA, potentially preventing the recall of a half billion eggs and an outbreak that is linked to about 1,500 reported illnesses.”

Ms. Young pointed out that, “Carol Tucker-Foreman, an assistant Agriculture secretary under President Carter, said egg graders view the companies — not consumers — as their ‘clients.’ The graders are part of an industry-funded program in USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, which promotes products.”

“[Dean Kastner, an assistant USDA branch chief in poultry grading program] and [USDA spokesman Caleb Weaver] said they didn’t know whether graders had identified any rodent issues in the areas of the facilities they considered under their watch. Their daily inspection reports are still being gathered, Weaver said.”

Recall that The Wall Street Journal reported on this issue yesterday, noting in part that, “Ever since the recent nationwide salmonella outbreak sickened more than 1,000 people and led to the recall of more than a half-billion eggs, USDA officials have stressed that ensuring egg safety isn’t their job. That task, they say, belongs to the Food and Drug Administration, which said Wednesday it is getting help from its criminal division and the Justice Department in looking at the farms at the center of the recall.

“So what’s the point of stamping egg cartons as Grade A? The USDA has two different missions. It does regulate some food safety, especially with meat, but it’s also responsible for promoting American food here and abroad. The egg shield comes from the USDA’s marketing side.”

Meanwhile, the AP reported today that, “U.S. Agriculture Department employees worked full-time at two Iowa egg farms at the center of a salmonella outbreak and massive recall, but two former workers said they ignored complaints about conditions at one site.

“The USDA employees worked next to areas where roughly 7.7 million caged hens laid eggs at the two operations, but agency spokesman Caleb Weaver said their main duties are ‘grading’ the eggs and they aren’t primarily responsible for looking for health problems.”

The article stated that, “Weaver said the USDA employee who oversaw grading at the facility did not recall anyone raising issues.

“Two former workers at Wright County Egg facilities, Robert and Deanna Arnold, said they reported problems such as leaking manure and dead chickens to USDA employees, but nothing was done.

The USDA ‘graders’ worked in buildings adjacent to where hens laid eggs, focusing on weighing, measuring and inspecting eggs before they were packaged. They are the people who determine if an egg is A or AA, for instance.”

Later, the AP article noted that, “Weaver said USDA graders must report unsanitary or other conditions that would require them to withhold grading services. Graders are paid through fees producers pay to the USDA. Only graded eggs can be sold to consumers at stores. Weaver said an investigation of Wright County Egg is continuing.”

In related news regarding the egg recall, a news release yesterday from the Human Society of the U.S. stated that, “[HSUS] mailed letters to all of the managers on the state’s [California] list of certified farmers markets requesting that they adopt policies to prohibit the sale of eggs from caged hens.”

And DTN Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton reported yesterday that, “As events have unfolded following a 550-million egg recall, groups created to be agriculture advocates — agvocates — have remained relatively quiet about the situation.

“These groups established by various producer organizations and allied industries to defend agriculture don’t want to talk about how ag should respond to the recall and the large business at the center of the federal health probe and possible criminal investigation.”

The DTN article went on to provide additional analysis and examples of this observation.

Policy Issues

Heather Thorstensen reported yesterday at AgriNews Online that, “While visiting dairy farmers in Fairfax Aug. 24, U.S. Senator Al Franken [D-MN] made it clear he values their opinions and looks to them for guidance on dealing with legislative issues that could help their industry.

“‘You’re the experts,’ he told them.”

The article noted that, “In the question-and-answer session, people expressed concerns about keeping the U.S. dairy industry on a level playing field with other countries, potential future regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency and keeping the cap on farms eligible for MILC payments.

“He was asked if the farm bill could be separated into budgets for agriculture, nutrition and forestry so the general public doesn’t wrongly assume farmers get the entire budget. Franken said it’s important to keep the bill’s components together so it can pass through Congress.

“‘The way you get a congressman in New York City to vote for the ag bill is if you have food stamps in it,’ he said.”

A news release yesterday from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) indicated that, “As Congress begins debate over the next Farm Bill, [Sen. Gillibrand], the first New Yorker to serve on the Senate Agriculture Committee in nearly 40 years, today met with Finger Lakes region farmers to begin her statewide listening sessions to discuss new efforts to help New York farmers and farming communities.”

With respect to the executive branch, Ken Anderson reported yesterday at Brownfield that, “A recent article in the publication Bloomberg Businessweek insinuated that Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack wants to take the five billion dollars currently spent on direct payments to farmers and put it into ‘rural initiative’ programs, including broadband grants and nutrition programs.

Vilsack says he was interviewed for the Bloomberg article, but he tells Brownfield at no time did he call for five billion dollar cuts to farm programs.

“‘If you look at the transcript that we provided, there’s no mention of that at all—none at all,’ says Vilsack. ‘It’s an unfortunate circumstance where I think a reporter had basically an idea and a story that he wanted to write, and what I told him wasn’t necessarily consistent with that—but he just decided to write it anyway—which is unfortunate because it gets a lot of misinformation out there.’”

The Browfield link also included an audio replay of Mr. Anderson’s discussion with Sec. Vilsack.

In other policy related news, Bloomberg news reported yesterday that, “The number of Americans receiving food stamps rose to a record 41.3 million in June as the jobless rate hovered near a 27-year high, the government said.

“Recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program subsidies for food purchases jumped 18 percent from a year earlier and increased 1.2 percent from May, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said today in a statement on its website. Participation has set records for 19 straight months.”

***

The Washington Post editorial board indicated in today’s paper that, “John Boyd Jr. has had it. Mr. Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, has worked for the past quarter-century to win some semblance of justice for African American farmers, who for decades were denied government loans because of the color of their skin. Yet something goes wrong every time Mr. Boyd and his constituents think they have made headway.

“That was the case in 1999, when the government settled a class-action suit brought by black farmers only to find that bureaucratic foul-ups left tens of thousands of farmers out of the money. Congress passed a well-meaning fix in 2008, but it was flawed also; that made necessary the $1.25 billion settlement this year between the farmers and the Obama administration. Now the farmers are unable to collect their money because Congress has repeatedly failed to approve the measure.”

The Post noted that, “Native Americans have had an even tougher time securing remuneration for past injustices…[S]ome senators have cited the hefty legal fees — between $50 million and $99 million — due the lawyers for the Native Americans as a reason to reject the settlement. We share some of their discomfort, especially because the average Native American will pocket less than $2,000. But the settlement should not be scuttled because of this. The lawyers have put in two decades of work without being paid and are slated to receive a contingency fee of only 3 percent — far less than what is usually awarded. The reality is that these types of cases would probably fall by the wayside if advocates did not have a reasonable shot at a handsome payout. Even if the lawyers agreed to accept less, the difference to the 300,000 Native Americans in line for a payment would be minuscule.

“African Americans and Native Americans have been the most persecuted and exploited groups in this nation’s history, and the settlements in question represent modest, but achievable, efforts to address discrete harms. The White House and Congress should work diligently to ensure that these most recent promises become reality.”

Agricultural Economy

Liam Pleven, Ira Iosebashvili and Tom Polansek reported in today’s Wall Street Journal that, “Russia said it would extend its ban on wheat exports into late 2011, pushing up the grain’s price and sparking fears of supply shortages and broader unrest over rising food costs.

“Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced Thursday that Russia would consider lifting the ban only ‘after next year’s harvest is gathered.’ That will take the drought-wracked country out of the global grain trade for far longer than it indicated last month, when it said it would halt wheat exports through December.

“The move underscores concern that hot weather and wildfires haven’t only damaged the current crop but also threaten efforts to plant the next one.”

The Journal article added that, “Russia’s plans also place a heavier burden on the U.S. and other exporters to meet world demand next year and help check potential food price increases like those that sparked riots in several countries in 2008. The world’s stockpiles of agricultural commodities are much higher than two years ago, and prices far lower, but many worry the situation will worsen.

Warnings of possible unrest came this week as protesters spilled into the streets in Mozambique again on Thursday, after riots erupted the day before, the Associated Press reported. Bread prices there have risen about 25% in the past year, and fuel and water costs also are up.”

Clifford J. Levy reported in today’s New York Times that, “Last year, Russia was the world’s third largest wheat exporter, behind the United States and Canada.”

Jack Farchy reported on Wednesday at the Financial Times Online that, “Global meat prices have hit a 20-year high as robust demand from emerging countries has coincided with a drop in production by exporters such as the US and Australia, fuelling concerns about rising food inflation.

“The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s index of meat prices rose in August to its highest level since 1990, up 16 per cent over the past year, after lamb prices hit a 37-year high, beef prices climbed to a two-year high and the cost of pork and poultry prices rose [see related graph].”

Climate Issues- EPA

Reuters writer Timothy Gardner reported yesterday that, “The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will roll out more regulations on greenhouse gases and other pollution to help fight climate change, but they will not be as strong as action by Congress, a senior administration official said.

“The agency ‘has a huge role to play in continuing the work to move from where we are now to lower carbon emissions’, said the official, who did not want to be identified as the EPA policies are still being formed.

“President Barack Obama, looking to take the lead in global talks on greenhouse gas emissions, has long warned that the EPA would take steps to regulate emissions if Congress failed to pass a climate bill.”

The article added that, “The senior official stopped short of saying the EPA alone would achieve Obama’s goal of about 17 percent reductions in greenhouse gases by 2020 from 2005 levels.

“‘With legislation you almost certainly get more emissions reductions than you get with existing authorities’ that the EPA can use under the Clean Air Act, the official said.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Rep. House Ag Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN) were in Crookston, MN yesterday and discussed agricultural issues with constituents. An audio report yesterday from the Red River Farm Network included comments from Chairman Peterson regarding the EPA. The report noted that Chairman Peterson said the EPA must be “reigned in.”

To listen to a clip of Chairman Peterson’s candid and direct comments regarding the EPA from yesterday’s Red River Farm Network Radio program, just click here (MP3- about one minute).

Political Notes

The Washington Insider section of DTN stated yesterday (link requires subscription) that, “A turnover in either or both the House and Senate to the Republican Party would likely mean not only key changes in Congress, but also in some high-level positions in the Obama administration — perhaps including USDA.

“Some high-level officials have already left or will soon leave the administration. Former Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag has already left. Head of the Council of Economic Advisers, Christina Romer, will depart Sept. 3 and is expected to eventually be tapped to head up the San Francisco Federal Reserve. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and National Economic Council Director Larry Summers are expected to be around at least until the 2012 presidential election — unless the U.S. economy were to significantly falter again.

As for USDA Secretary, we find no credible evidence that Tom Vilsack will depart after the elections. But both political parties have a history of putting a former lawmaker (either retired or defeated) at the top spot of the Agriculture Department. Should Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., lose her reelection bid, some say Vilsack could get another spot in the administration and Lincoln could be tapped to lead USDA. But our sources say there could be some farm policy differences that lower the odds for any Lincoln-led USDA.”

Jordan Fabian reported on Wednesday at The Hill’s Blog Briefing Room that, “A Republican congressman slammed Congress’s independent ethics office after it dismissed its case against him and four other lawmakers, saying it sullied his reputation.

“Rep. Frank Lucas (Okla.) said in a statement Tuesday that the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) damaged his ‘political capital’ and said that the group should keep its business more concealed.

“‘Hours were spent producing documents and preparing for interviews,’ Lucas said, according to The Oklahoman. ‘However, the real cost has been to my personal political capital.’”

Keith Good

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