Food Policy Round-Up: Spring 2016

Cherry Blossoms, Washington DC by Dhilung Kirat

With the election drama dominating the news, it's been easy to miss all the exciting action happening in Congress over the past few months. The cheat sheet we've created below summarizes the most significant food and agriculture related bills Congress has been working on, why they're important and their current status.

Fiscal Year 2017 Agriculture Appropriations Bill 


What it Is

Annual appropriations bills set money aside each fiscal year for operations, personnel and equipment for specific federal government departments, agencies and programs. Agriculture appropriations bills specifically fund the activities of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and their important federal agricultural and food programs and services. Through these funding bills, members of Congress can increase or cut funding for existing programs, policies and federal agencies. In recent years the bills have increasingly contained new policy provisions, often in the form of riders.

Both the Senate and the House Appropriations Committees approve their own funding bills for the fiscal year, which begins annually on October 1. The FY2017 House agriculture funding bill released on April 12th provides $21.3 billion in discretionary funding - $451 million less than the 2016 enacted funding level and $281 million below the President's budget request. The FY2017 Senate agriculture funding bill released on May 19th provides $21.25 billion, which is $250 million below the FY2016 enacted level.

House Agriculture Appropriations Bill Highlights

The 2017 House Agriculture Appropriations Bill would increase funding for rural development and food safety, but also re-open the farm bill. Highlights to the Bill include an increase to funding for rural development programs to $2.88 billion ($113 million more than in fiscal 2016 ) to support rural businesses and infrastructure and a $33.2 million increase to food safety funding for the FDA. The House Appropriations Bill makes mandatory changes to Farm Bill funding and deep cuts to environmental conservation programs that help incentivize farmers to use and maintain sustainable practices. According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the Bill includes a $300 million cut to the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), a $323 million cut to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQUIP) and a $46 million cut to the Resource Conservation Partnership Program. The Bill also fails to include any funding for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, which is the only USDA grant program with a consistent focus on sustainability and farmer led research.

A controversial "GIPSA rider" was also added to the House Agriculture Spending Bill at the last minute that would block the USDA's Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) from finalizing regulations designed to protect poultry farmers who have contracts with the large processing companies that own the birds.

Senate Appropriations Bill Highlights  

Unlike the House Bill, the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Bill includes some big wins for sustainable agriculture. Some of the highlights in the bill include a $2.3 million funding increase for sustainable agriculture research through the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, full funding for the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) as it was prescribed in the 2014 Farm Bill, and additional funding for outreach to beginning, socially disadvantaged and veteran farmers. The Senate Bill also did not include the GIPSA rider. However, like the House Bill, the Senate Bill cuts funding for the EQUIP program.

During the debate of the Senate Bill, Senator Murkowski (R-AK) was able to get an amendment to the Bill approved by voice vote that would require the mandatory labeling of genetically engineered salmon.

Why it's Important

Appropriations bills have significant impact on the activities, programs and priorities of the USDA and FDA as well as federal agriculture policy as a whole. As a result, these bills have the potential to affect every aspect of the food system, from farm to fork.

In response to the to the cuts to the Farm Bill's environmental conservation programs, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition said that they're "deeply troubled [because the cuts] will have a direct impact on farmers, ranchers and foresters who are trying to conserve soil, water, and other resources on and around their land."

USDA spokesperson Catherine Cochran told reporters that the GIPSA rider "...demonstrates a complete lack of concern for honest, hardworking families who raise our poultry...The focus should be on how to ensure a fair marketplace and a level playing field for our farming families - nothing less."  

Status and Next Steps

Both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees have passed their agriculture funding bills for FY2017 out of committee and should theoretically be sending them to the floor of each chamber for consideration. After this happens, the House and Senate will need to reconcile the differences between the two bills and come to an agreement on final funding levels and policy riders. As for the passage of the bills, it's unclear given the limited timeline and upcoming elections whether Congress will be able to pass the bills anytime soon. It's possible that congress may pass an extension (called a continuing resolution) to extend last year's funding levels and wrap the agriculture appropriations bills into a larger funding package at the end of the year.

S.2911. A Bill to Amend the Packers and Stockyards Act, 1921


What it Is

Senator Chuck Grassley's (R-I) S.2911 bill amends the Packers and Stockyards Act to make it illegal for a meat packer to own, feed or control livestock or the farm that produces the livestock that they are intending to slaughter and process. His bill includes exemptions for farmer cooperatives where members own, feed or control the livestock, and meat packers that are too small to be covered by the Agriculture Department's mandatory price reporting program.

Why it's Important

Since the 1970s, the meatpacking industry has consolidated rapidly with slaughterhouses becoming much larger and concentrations increasing as small firms have left the industry. As a result, the USDA has found that large meat packers have large cost advantages over smaller slaughterhouses, and have been able to get more and more business from livestock producers. Grassley hopes his bill (S. 2911), if enacted, will help reverse this consolidation within the meat packing industry. When introducing the bill, Grassley, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, cited several recent mergers in the meatpacking industry, including the 2013 purchase of Smithfield - the US's largest pork producer - the Chinese firm Shuanghui International. "An effective and efficient marketplace is one where packers that control all harvest capacity of the industry do not also own a majority of the animals to be processed," Grassley said in a statement. "The fact of the matter is that the market continues to become less competitive. It's time to see if ending packer ownership of livestock will reverse that trend."

Status and Next Steps

The Bill has been introduced in the Senate and referred to the Senate Agriculture committee on May 10th where it's awaiting review.

R.5298 Food Date Labeling Act of 2016 


What it Is 

Introduced by Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) on May 19th, The Food Date Labeling Act aims to set a uniform national system for date labeling that distinguishes between foods that have a label indicating peak quality from foods that have labels indicating they may become unsafe to eat past a certain date. The Bill would also ensure that food is allowed to be sold or donated after its quality date, and educates consumers about the meaning of new labels so that they can make better financial and safety decisions.

Why it's Important

As anyone who shops for food knows, there are numerous date labels on food products - like "sell by," "use by" and "expires on" - that confuse consumers. This confusion contributes to 90 percent of Americans prematurely throwing away perfectly edible, safe food. In response, Pingree and Blumenthal introduced the Food Date Labeling Act to help improve amd clarify labels, simplify regulatory compliance for companies and reduce food waste.

Americans waste roughly 40 percent of their food - the equivalent of about $115 billion per year. Of the estimated 133 billion pounds of found that goes to waste every year, much of it is perfectly edible and healthy. At a time when one in six Americans are food insecure, reducing food loss by just 25 percent would be enough to feed more than 25 million people each year.

Status and Next Steps

The Bill was introduced in the House by Pingree and Blumenthal in the Senate and has been referred to committees. It's reported that the Bill has wide bipartisan support from industry groups, consumers and members of Congress and has "unique potential to get approved" according to Dana Gunders, senior scientist at the NRDC.


Other Quick Bill Updates 


Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) 

What it Is and Why it's Important

Every five years Congress reauthorizes the Child Nutrition Act, a broad piece of legislation that governs school meals and nutrition programs for moms and kids, including WIC, the National School Lunch Program and the National Farm to School Program. Millions of women and children who otherwise may have limited access to healthy food benefit from the programs embedded in the Child Nutrition Act. The last version of the Bill, the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, passed in 2010 and included provisions that have improved children's basic daily nutrition and increased school lunch participation and revenue.

Status and Next Steps 

Eight months after the expiration of the last Child Nutrition Act, the House Education and the Workforce Committee released its long-awaited Child Nutrition Reauthorization Bill the week of May 16th. The House Bill includes a lot of highly controversial provisions and is very partisan in nature, making its passage unlikely. The legislation would relax some nutrition standards for school meals, increase the reimbursement rate for school breakfasts and create a controversial block grant pilot program in three states that advocates fear may lead to large cuts to child nutrition programs. There is so far unanimous opposition to a controversial provision in the bill which would increase the threshold for high poverty schools that qualify for the program to serve universal free meals.

Unlike the House Bill, the Senate's version of the Bill (called the Improving Child Nutrition Integrity and Access Act of 2016) has the endorsement of all the major advocacy groups, but has been stalled due to discrepancies over program cost estimates. Both Bills include increased funding and programmatic improvements for the Farm to School Program.

It's unlikely that a new CNR will be completed in the limited number of working days left before election season starts this year, given that the budget issues still haven't been resolved in the Senate Bill and the strong opposition that exists for the House version of the Bill. If floor passage does happen, the differences between the House and Senate Bills would need to be reconciled and then the compromise Bill would need to be sent back to each chamber before a vote. After that, Congress would have to send the Bill to the President for his signature.

"Natural" Food Labels

What it Is and Why it's Important 

"Natural," "all natural" or "made with natural ingredients" are common terms used by food manufacturers, but there currently aren't any formal rules that determine what they mean. Despite this fact, a survey completed last year by Consumer Reports National Research Center found that over 50 percent of respondents look for the word "natural" on food labels when they shop. Another survey found that more people purchase "natural" foods than organic foods: 73 percent versus 58 percent. Shoppers surveyed also said they believed that products labeled as "natural" are better and healthier than others. After years of calls to action from courts, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finally asked the public to weigh in on whether or not it's appropriate to define the term "natural," and if so, how it should be defined.

Under current FDA standards, foods with no artificial or synthetic ingredients, such as artificial colors, are considered "natural." However, the FDA says those standards do not address food production methods like use of pesticides or manufacturing methods such as genetic modification. So, in short, consumers are being at best confused and at worst intentionally mislead by the "natural" label on their groceries.

To help address the issue, FDA opened up a formal comment period for consumers to weigh in on if and how "natural" should be defined.

Status and Next Steps 

May 10th was the last day to weigh in on whether the FDA should define "natural" for use on food labels, and if so, what the term should mean. Members of the public submitted more than 7,600 comments for the FDA to pore over. The regulatory docket is here. However, it's unclear whether this effort will really go anywhere. The FDA has said defining "natural" will be difficult because the meaning of the word is so subjective. And with so many comments to go through (which the FDA are obligated to individually read AND respond to), it's possible that this project could be lost in the shuffle of setting up a new administration.


Image "Cherry Blossoms, Washington DC" by Dhilung Kirat on Flickr used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.