LEGISLATIVE LINE

Barry Scher is a government and retail consultant with Policy Solutions LLC. He is a 42-year veteran of Giant/Landover, where he held several key positions, including Vice President of Corporate Public Affairs. He can be reached at bscher@policy-solutions.net.

Federal Spending Package 

Now that the government has funding in place to keep it running through September 30, 2019, you would think things have calmed down a bit. Not so. These days on Capitol Hill it’s like as soon as one problem is resolved another one crops up. So while we averted a second government shutdown, Congress still has to raise the federal borrowing limit by early fall as well as agree to a new budget by the end of September. So with that said, how did the temporary budget agreement impact us foodies? 

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Congressional lawmakers enacted a huge, $328 billion spending bill covering slightly more than a dozen agencies. In the massive spending package, there are big demands placed on the two major agencies that oversee our food industry – the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. Funding for the USDA-FDA bill totals $23.04 billion in discretionary dollars, a slight increase of $32 million over the previous year. It boosts funding for agriculture research and Farm Service Agency programs, while trimming spending levels for the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Food Safety Inspection Service. The spending bill also earmarks about $15 million of the FDA funds to be used for inspections of foreign seafood processors and imported seafood. And about $3 billion is directed to the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Lawmakers have earmarked that the extra money go towards specific areas including poultry, aquaculture, greenhouse technology and nutrition. The budget also provides mandatory funding for SNAP ($73.5 billion) and child nutrition programs ($23.1 billion).

In summary, Food Safety News reported that the budget agreement provides $5 million more to deal with food safety outbreaks; $2 million more for Standard of Identity and Product labeling; and $1.5 million more for consumer education and biotechnology outreach. All these numbers may seem confusing but they fund quite a number of food safety issues and related policies and that will be important to you and your business. With more money often comes new rules and regulations. Stay tuned.

Of Special Note

Mark your calendars for April 22. That’s the date the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case I mentioned in my column last month that could determine whether the Agriculture Department must comply with a Freedom of Information Act request to release SNAP retail sales individual store data. The case pits powerful grocery companies including the Food Marketing Institute against a small South Dakota newspaper that started the ball rolling by demanding information be published about grocery retailers’ individual store SNAP sales.

Dietary Guidelines 

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The new Dietary Guidelines, when finalized, will be extremely important to food retailers, manufacturers and processors for marketing purposes. Now Congress, as part of the new spending package, has asked USDA to formally report on how the agency will modify its approach to drafting the new Dietary Guidelines that are changed and published every five years. According to Politico, the report must be published within six months. Lawmakers gave USDA more than $12 million to develop the all-important guidelines.

One of the more important Dietary Guidelines issues puts at different ends of the healthy food spectrum an intensive fight between those who favor a plant-based diet and those who support low-carb, high protein diets in the debate over the focus of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines. A loose knit group including the Nutrition Coalition, Atkins Nutritionals and livestock interests, lobbied Congress and urged USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services to appoint members to the Dietary Guidelines advisory committee who have a broader dietary viewpoint than the supporters of plant-based diets, who dominated the last advisory committee. It appears as if their words were heard as the USDA and HHS secretaries just recently announced the appointment of 20 nationally recognized scientists to serve on the all-important committee.

FYI – the guidelines serve as the cornerstone of federal nutrition programs and policies, providing food-based recommendations to help prevent diet-related chronic diseases and promote overall health.

Update On ‘Fake’ Meat/Milk

The battle between traditional livestock interests and the plant-based food industry over how the latter’s products are labeled is intensifying. The New York Times recently reported that livestock producers and their farm allies have convinced legislators in more than a dozen states to introduce legislation to ban the use of the word “meat” in the labeling and advertising of plant-based substitutes. If enacted, many of these state laws will be challenged in court, as the livestock industry is determined to prevent what happened to the dairy industry to happen to them. Remember the debate over soy milk versus the real stuff? Interesting dichotomy.

And the beat goes on as Meatingplace News reports that the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association has launched a campaign called “Fake Meat Facts.” Additionally, Politico reports that the National Milk Producers Federation has asked FDA to immediately enforce an existing labeling regulation that requires the word “imitation” to be clearly displayed on products that resemble or are a substitute for a traditional food if the alternative contains fewer nutrients. The Plant-Based Food Association membership fired back in response and said “requiring such a disparaging word as ‘imitation’ on labels would indeed violate the First Amendment.” Stay tuned as meat and dairy interests continue to protect their turf!

Dietary Supplements

Dietary supplements continue to grow in popularity and take up more space in food store aisles these days than ever before. The Washington Post recently reported on a new, major announcement by FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb on an agency initiative to protect consumers from new dietary supplements spiked with unlisted drug ingredients and from false and misleading health claims. The commissioner announced that FDA will beef up its regulatory oversight of the industry, institute procedures to communicate to consumers concerns about certain supplements and establish a new regulatory framework to evaluate product safety, while still encouraging innovation. (Note – just before presstime it was announced that Gottleib has submitted his resignation.)

Produce/Organics

Nearly 50 bipartisan members of Congress have written to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross urging him to scrap the current U.S.-Mexico Tomato Suspension Agreement and reopen the anti-dumping case against Mexican tomato growers with the argument that it will lead to a better agreement for American growers. The Organic Trade Association organized a fly-in lobbying event of organic farmers last month to educate and lobby new members of Congress about the organic industry and the need to quickly implement and fund the anti-fraud measures in the recently passed Farm Bill. It looks like the fight to ban hydroponically grown produce from being certified as organic will continue, if in spirit only. The opposition of the organic industry to certifying hydroponic produce has been going on since 1995. It appeared to end last year when Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS) backed the National Organic Board’s close decision to allow certification. But last month a coalition of diehard organic related organizations, led by the Center for Food Safety, Food and Water Watch and the Cornucopia Institute, filed a petition with AMS asking it to reverse its ruling. AMS responded that it will not do so. We will continue to monitor this issue. 

Recycling

In case you missed it, the January 25 edition of the Wall Street Journal included two major food industry stories of interest. One story highlighted the efforts under way in our industry to promote and use compostable bags, cups and cutlery and the mounting backlash against plastic waste. The other story was about marketing more products in reusable containers. “The world’s biggest makers of shampoo, detergent and packaged food will test selling their products in reusable containers, adopting a milkman-style model to address concerns about plastic waste,” headlined the WSJ article. We believe you will see more recycling and more products sold in environmentally friendly packaging coming on tap. It’s another trend that we at Policy Solutions see as gathering more and more support from retailers who want to attract, as the story said, “green, virtuous shoppers!” So far, French supermarket giant Carrefour SA has signed on to participate in a test of handling products that customers can buy and then return the empty containers to their stores. I’ve been around long enough to tell you what goes around comes around! We shall see.