Congress' Spending Bill Full of Food System Changes

Meat producers in US no longer required to label country of origin of products

If you're the type of person that wants to know what you're eating and where your food comes from, then you may have some seriously mixed feelings about Congress right now. While many of us were traveling for the holidays, Congress passed a massive end-of-the-year federal spending bill that included all kinds of small legislative changes that will have a big impact on our ability to find information about what's on our plates. But there is some good news - like movement toward labeling GM salmon and clean water protection.

We've summarized the most important food and agriculture laws included in the bill and their potential impact below:

Repeal of Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) on Meat

One of the major changes made through the spending bill was the repeal of a labeling law that required food retailers to state the country of origin of certain types and cuts of meat. The labels - which described where the animals the meat came from were born, raised and slaughtered - originated in the early 2000s in response to fears about mad cow disease in imported meat. Recently the World Trade Organization (WTO) declared that the labels violated trade agreements by unfairly discriminating against imported meat and told Canada and Mexico they could collect $1 billion from the US in retaliatory tariffs. In an effort to avoid these penalties, Congress decided to repeal the labels.

While the repeal of at least some of the country of origin labels seemed inevitable after the WTO ruling, consumer advocacy groups were disappointed that Congress took the additional unrequired step of repealing the labels on ground beef and pork as well. Unfortunately, this repeal, which Food and Water Watch described as a "holiday gift to the meatpacking industry from Congress," comes during a time when consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about where their food comes from and are seeking more, not less, information about what they are eating. This isn't to say that meat producers aren't allowed to add information on their labels about where their product comes from; it's just that they are no longer required to do so by the federal government. So if you're still concerned about knowing what country your meat originates from, a safe way to ensure it's from the US is to buy it locally from farmers in your area.

New Labeling Guidelines Required for Genetically Modified Salmon

While Congress may have made it more difficult for consumers to know where their meat comes from, they did fortunately take steps to require the FDA to develop labeling guidelines for genetically modified (GM) salmon before any of the GM fish can hit grocery store shelves. However, some experts say that this language is actually weaker than it sounds and doesn't actually force the FDA to require labels on GM salmon. It could, for example, just mean that the FDA has to put information about GM salmon on a website that consumers can access. Still, consumer groups agree, it's a step in the right direction.

States Still Free to Pass and Implement GM Labeling Laws

However, just as important as what was tacked on to the spending bill is what was left out. Some members of Congress were hoping to get language from the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act - or the DARK Act as opponents call it - into the spending bill that would have prevented states from passing their own mandatory GM labeling laws. Fortunately, Congress didn't add any of this language. This means that the fight for GM labeling is still alive and well. In fact, Vermont, which passed a law in 2014 requiring foods with GM ingredients to be labeled in the state, is one step closer to being able to implement the nation's first mandatory labeling law this summer.

Protections for Streams and Wetlands Will Be Enforced

Clean water, wildlife and fishing groups were all very happy to see that Congress also left language out of the spending bill that would have blocked or delayed the implementation of a rule restoring Clean Water Act protections to small streams and wetlands. After many years of court battles over what bodies of water the EPA has jurisdiction over through the CWA, the EPA declared in 2015 through a new Waters of the US rule that tributaries, floodplains and wetlands are now all explicitly under their jurisdiction. The American Farm Bureau Federation and some of their allies in Congress argue that the rule will negatively impact farmers by giving the federal government too much power to regulate every puddle, stream and ditch in the country and were hoping to block the rule through the spending bill.



Image "pink: the other white meat" by Robert Couse-Baker on Flickr used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.