January 27, 2020

West Coast Ports- Obama sends Labor Secretary to California- Agricultural Implications (Saturday)


Christi Parsons, Andrew Khouri and Chris Kirkham reported on Saturday at the Los Angeles Times Online that, “President Obama is sending Labor Secretary Tom Perez to California to meet this weekend with ship owners and longshoremen involved in the ongoing labor dispute that threatens to shut down 29 West Coast ports, a White House advisor said Saturday.

“As Obama prepared to leave San Francisco on Saturday morning, aides said he summoned Perez to get the parties together to talk. The union representing dockworkers and the Pacific Maritime Assn. met Friday without reaching a deal. It’s not clear when they’ll meet again.

“The workers’ last contract expired in July and the two sides have been operating without one since. The dispute broke open in the fall when the shipping group accused union workers of slowing down on the job as a negotiating tactic.”

The LA Times article explained that, “Obama still thinks the problems need to be solved at the bargaining table without intervention from the federal government. But he thinks Perez may be able to help the parties find common ground and dispatched him ‘out of concern for the economic consequences of further delay,’ White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Saturday.

“Perez will travel to California to meet with the sides ‘to urge them to resolve their dispute quickly at the bargaining table,’ he said.

“Perez is already in contact with the negotiators, Schultz said.”

House Ag Committee member Dan Newhouse (R., Wash.), who last week introduced a House Resolution expressing the sense of Congress that negotiations must come to a swift conclusion, indicated in a statement on Saturday that: “I am encouraged by the Administration’s response to calls for stepped-up involvement to address the dispute that has already crippled the West Coast’s export economy and had a devastating impact on Central Washington. I strongly urge both parties to remain at the negotiating table until a resolution is quickly reached to end the prospect of an even more damaging long-term port shutdown.”

Last week’s measure was introduced along with House Ag Committee member Jim Costa (D., Calif.) as well as, Dave Reichert (R., Wash.) and former House Ag Committee member Kurt Schrader (D., Ore.); for more details, see this article from Friday’s Los Angeles Times, “House members call for swift resolution of West Coast port dispute.”

Laura Stevens noted in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal that, “While still on the table, pay, pension benefits and the length of the contract aren’t expected to further hinder negotiations. Up until a couple of weeks ago, the two sides seemed very close to a settlement.

Both sides are at an impasse on arbitration, however. Four regional arbitrators currently act as judges in disputes between the union and port employers. Unless both groups agree to remove an arbitrator, he or she remains in place for a life term. At the heart of the dispute is a disagreement over whether one of the arbitrators should continue in the role.

“The union wants to adjust the rules so that at the end of each contract, either group could decide to unseat an arbitrator. The PMA wants to keep the system that has been in place for decades, arguing it allows for stability and keeps the union from ousting arbitrators who side with the employers.”


Agricultural Implications

Chris Kirkham and Tiffany Hsu reported on the front page of the Business Section in Saturday’s Los Angeles Times that, “On any given day, up to a dozen ships handle more than $1 billion worth of goods in the mammoth ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the nation’s busiest seaport.

“Thousands of trucks carry off 40% of the nation’s incoming container cargo each year, feeding into an extensive highway and rail network that brings electronics, cars and toys to consumers and businesses throughout the nation.

“But despite the enormous volume of goods flowing through the ports in San Pedro Bay, and a long-simmering labor dispute that threatens a shutdown of 29 West Coast ports, economists and trade experts said closures would have very little effect on the broader U.S. economy. That’s because the trade of goods through U.S. ports represents only a fraction of the nation’s total economic output.”

Nonetheless, the LA Times writers pointed out that, “Certainly many businesses would feel the pain, and have already felt it, after months of slowdowns at West Coast ports. Agricultural exporters who ship produce to Japan, China and Australia face canceled orders and spoiled food. Manufacturers who rely on parts from China are contending with work stoppages and delays.”

More specifically, Saturday’s article explained that, “A shipment of fruit set to depart to New Zealand and Australia in December left late last month.

“‘It’s the fresh fruit business — it’s perishable,’ said LoBue, whose company is based in Lindsay. ‘The growing season ends in May. Whatever you miss, you miss. There’s no catching up.’

Economists don’t dispute that companies that deal in commodities such as fruit and seafood will take a hit from the slowdown and potential stoppage. But most businesses can deal with such delays — though there may be costs.”

On Friday, Reuters writer Steve Gorman reported that, “Protracted labor strife and shipping disruptions at U.S. West Coast ports have hit farmers especially hard, posing a major barrier to perishable goods headed to overseas markets and resulting in losses estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars a week.

“Foreign Pacific Rim customers facing chronic delays in shipments of U.S. food and farm products are turning to other countries for produce ranging from citrus and apples to beef and pork, the Washington-based Agriculture Transportation Coalition (AgTC) has reported.

Many frustrated U.S. suppliers are deciding to forgo exports and scrambling instead to find domestic buyers for their produce, driving down prices, said Wendy Fink-Weber, a spokeswoman for the Western Growers trade organization.”

Friday’s article stated that, “Precise figures on the extent of damage are hard to come by. The AgTC has estimated that total U.S. agricultural export losses – for fruits, vegetables and meats shipped by container – were running roughly $400 million a week in December, the latest month for which industry data was available.”

Bloomberg writers Craig Giammona, James Nash and Lindsey Rupp reported that, “Even if West Coast dockworkers resolve their nine-month labor dispute soon, a lingering slowdown at the ports threatens to hurt U.S. companies for months to come.”

The Bloomberg article indicated that, “The congestion is taking a toll on consumer goods, food, clothing and other products. Tyson Foods Inc., the largest U.S. meat producer, has shifted its export strategy to cope with the situation. Cuts of meat that would have been sent to China are being used instead for lesser-value ground beef in the U.S., according to Gary Mickelson, a company spokesman.”

The article added that, “ConAgra, which sells Chef Boyardee canned foods, Orville Redenbacher’s popcorn and Reddi-wip dessert topping, lowered its annual forecast on Thursday, in part because of the port slowdown. The labor showdown has hurt exports of Lamb Weston potato products, as well packaged goods, including Swiss Miss hot chocolate and Act II popcorn, ConAgra said.”


GMO Apples

Categories: Biotech

Video from The Wall Street Journal: Time-Lapse: Conventional Apple vs. GMO Apple, A time-lapse video shows the differences in browning of a regular golden delicious apple and a genetically modified Arctic golden apple left out for 24 hours. Photo: Arctic Apples.

Andrew Pollack reported in Saturday’s New York Times that, “The government on Friday approved the commercial planting of genetically engineered apples that are resistant to turning brown when sliced or bruised.

“The developer, Okanagan Specialty Fruits, says it believes the nonbrowning feature will be popular with both consumers and food service companies because it will make sliced apples more appealing. The feature could also reduce the number of apples discarded because of bruising.

“But many executives in the apple industry say they worry that the biotech apples, while safe to eat, will face opposition from some consumers, possibly tainting the wholesome image of the fruit that reputedly ‘keeps the doctor away.’ They are also concerned that it could hurt exports of apples to countries that do not like genetically modified foods.”

Mr. Pollack explained that, “The Department of Agriculture, which approved the apples for commercial planting, said on Friday that it had considered these issues. However, it said that under the law, approval is based on whether a genetically modified crop poses a threat to other plants. The department determined that the apples posed no such risk.

“The so-called Arctic apples — which will be available in the Granny Smith and Golden Delicious varieties — are genetically engineered in a way to suppress the production of an enzyme that causes browning when cells in the apple are injured, from slicing, for example.

“But over time the apples will still rot and turn brown. In November, the Agriculture Department approved a genetically engineered potato developed by the J.R. Simplot Company that uses a similar technique to prevent browning.”

Also on Saturday, Tennille Tracy reported in The Wall Street Journal that, “The Agriculture Department, which announced the approval Friday, said the apple was given the green light because it didn’t pose a risk to other plants or agricultural products. The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for ensuring the apple is safe to eat, but its review is voluntary and its approval isn’t required for the company to move forward.”

Ms. Tracy added that, “Earlier this week, Democrats in the U.S. House and Senate proposed bills directing the FDA to require labels for genetically modified foods. Republicans are likely to support competing measures that make labeling voluntary and prevent states from passing their own measures.

“Voters in at least four states, including Oregon and Colorado most recently, rejected ballot measures to require food companies to label genetically modified products sold in their states. Vermont is the only state to pass such a law, and its measure is being challenged in court.

Having secured the USDA’s approval, Okanagan says up to 70,000 of its trees could be planted in 2016, with the resulting fruit available for consumers as early as 2017. But it will take several years for there to be any significant production.”


Highlights: House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture- Budget Hearing, USDA Inspector General

Categories: Budget /Farm Bill

On Friday, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture held a budget hearing and heard testimony from USDA Inspector General Phyllis Fong.


Photo by the House Appropriations Committee

During the hearing, Subcommittee Chairman Robert Aderholt (R., Ala.), Subcommittee ranking member Sam Farr (D., Calif.) and Rep. Chellie Pingree (D., Maine) all referenced a recent New York Times article that focused on animal production research procedures and operations at a federal facility in Nebraska. The lawmakers expressed support for the IG to investigate some of the issues raised in the Times article in more detail.

Chairman Aderholt: In closing, I do want to thank you for agreeing to review the New York Times allegation about the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Nebraska. The article described research and attitudes that seem to be pretty much in…pretty inconsistent with the conscientious, the hardworking scientists and the staff that work there and that we have at the Agricultural Research Service. Your assistance in auditing the claims included in the article and reviewing the current conditions, practices and policies would be very helpful to us.

Ranking Member Farr: And I want to echo what the chairman said on the animal treatment center, and I’m sure it’s going to open up a lot of issues with a lot of university research areas, but it’s worth looking into. I know California has required all the research institutions in the state universities to change all their caging and animal husbandry practices to bring in humane practices, state-of-the-art humane practices. It’s very expensive to bring it all up, but they did it, and I think that’s probably something that we in Congress ought to look at.

Rep. Pingree: I want to just add my voice to the choruses of concern around a very troubling New York Times story that was mentioned about animal research, so I’m hopeful that we’re going to do some more investigating into that. And obviously many of the concerns that were raised in that story about the spending of taxpayer dollars and humane treatment basically bordering on the bizarre, in fact in some of the things that were being researched, in my opinion, and even more importantly, completely counter to what the consumer is looking for today. I mean, the market is growing in humanely raised and, you know, different levels of treatment for animals, so why the taxpayer dollars is being spent in something that’s clearly inappropriate practice I think raises a lot of questions. So just want to add my concerns along with the chair and the ranking member.

Also at the hearing on Friday, Rep. Sanford Bishop (D., Ga.) raised the issue of payment error rates with IG Fong and some of her staff; a portion of this discussion is detailed below.

Rep. Bishop: Can you tell us what the current level of OIG resources are that are dedicated to the FSA and what’s planned for 2016, if any investigations of fraud-related activity have been conducted with respect to FSA programs over the past couple of years?

I’m a very strong supporter of our FSA programs, as I am for SNAP and WIC, but I think all of us agree that fraud should be routed out no matter where it is, and I believe that we need to be concerned with the level of attention which has been reaped on SNAP versus the other programs such as risk management, the conservation programs.

So I’d really like to…can you tell me what the fraud rate, the error rate is? I know that SNAP and WIC are large programs, but what is the percentage error rate there compared to the other programs?

Ms. Fong: Okay.

Rep. Bishop: Because I think I was under the understanding that really that percentage of the total claims was small compared to some of the other programs that don’t get as much attention.

Ms. Fong: Let me just offer a few comments and then I’ll ask Gil and Ann. We also share your view that we need to address fraud wherever it occurs in USDA’s portfolio, and we are paying attention to allegations and issues in the farm programs and crop insurance programs, and I know we have some good examples of that.

In terms of the improper payment rates, you do have—I think you’re correct that in terms of what the department reports as improper payment rates in the food stamp program, it tends to be in the 3-4% range. In some of the other programs, say the RMA and NRCS programs, the improper payment rate is much higher, in the teens, maybe near 20%. There are probably a number of reasons for that. We are paying very close attention to that. And let me just offer the chance to comment to Gil and Ann.

Gil Harden, Assistant Inspector General for Audits: The thing that I would add to that, too, I mean, we are mindful of it, but the FSA percentages for their high risk programs for FSA are lower, some of the lower percentages. But we do keep them on the radar screen.

Ann Coffey, Acting Assistant Inspector General, Investigations: And I’d like to just address the question you had raised about what sorts of resources we’re allocating towards FSA investigative work. Historically, we have focused quite a bit of our resources on the SNAP program, but FSA is an area that we are definitely looking for an increase and expecting to increase our investigative work in those areas. We have had some very good cases within the last recent year with high dollar amounts, and so we do anticipate that within FY16 we will be increasing our work in FSA.

Meanwhile, Rep. David Young (R., Iowa) brought up antibiotic issues and livestock production during his conversation with IG Fong. A replay and transcript of this exchange is included below.

Rep. Young: Thank you for coming today. You know, I was at the beef expo in Iowa over the weekend, and we eat a lot of pork and produce a lot of pork as well in Iowa, as you know. And I understand in your budget you’ve ask for $57 million for an antibiotic resistance study on livestock, and it’s a new USDA initiative, [something] maybe you’ve studied a little bit in the past, but you’ve got to go forward, I think, and do something broader. And this causes farmers and ranchers in my state and other states, probably, some uncertainty and some cause for pause right there.

And just want to make sure that…the concerns are that sometimes this is viewed by ranchers and producers in a political science context and not sound science, and there may be outside pressures. I reflect back to the GMO debate. I just want to know, can you provide an overview of your work so far on any of this and where you want to go on this? And also, how do you involve the agriculture community, from the producers, the farmers, to veterinarians, and will you be keeping us up-to-date on this, and how will you do that?

Ms. Fong: I believe we have an ongoing audit on that. We started it last summer. We are probably in the middle of field work at this point. And I’m going to ask Gil to comment on specifically what our scope is on that.

Mr. Harden: I can kind of speak to our [unintelligible] scope. We’re basically looking at how the department is going about, you know, responding to the antibiotic resistance, you know, how they’re going about surveillance, you know, what they’re doing to match it with the science and stuff. It’s that line of questioning. But we are in the middle of field work. And I’d be more than happy to brief you further once we’re further along in the process.

Rep. Young: I’d appreciate that. Thank you.