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.

The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) became another political football this past month as House Democrats again stood fast in their demands that the agriculture department produce hard data to back up its claim for mandating SNAP work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents. As I mentioned last month, the president and USDA had published a proposed rule to strictly enforce work requirements which could significantly reduce food stamp use in retail stores by certain classes of food stamp recipients. Both sides of the aisle have drawn a line in the sand and if a resolution is not found, the issue itself could surely become a hotly debated political issue in the next election cycle.

In a related SNAP matter, USDA is looking to ease SNAP retail standards with a proposed rule which makes it easier for SNAP retailers to meet requirements that they offer a greater variety of staple foods. Convenience stores in particular have argued that the requirements, which were established by the Obama administration, were too costly. Congress ultimately blocked some of the standards from being implemented, according to Politico. The new USDA proposal would change the definition of what counts as “variety” within food groups like meat, dairy or fruits and vegetables. Canned beets, lemon juice and canned olives, for example, were added to the list of goods that count toward variety requirements for fruits and vegetables. You get the picture. Nothing is easy when it comes to complying with government rules and regulations.

Advertisement

SNAP Data Disclosure

After nearly eight years of litigation in lower courts, the Supreme Court has heard arguments in the case I reported on previously stemming from attempts by a South Dakota newspaper to make individual retail store food stamp sales data public throughout the U.S. Key justices made comments last month during a court hearing that were hostile to releasing the information publicly. A decision by the court is expected by mid-summer. This is a huge case that is being eagerly watched especially by supporters of Freedom of Information requests as well as food trade associations which are seeking to protect their members’ individual store sales data.

FDA To Define “Healthy”

In an exit interview published in Morning Agriculture, former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said that the agency will issue a rule for public comment this summer to define which foods can be labeled “healthy.” FDA is also developing an icon that will eventually be used on packaged foods to indicate that the product is healthy. In the same interview, Gottlieb said the agency will also announce new sodium reduction targets this year but he warned the food industry to tread carefully when battling sodium reduction targets. Guidance on voluntary short-term sodium reduction targets, according to the article, is now in the final clearance stages inside FDA and should be released in the next month or so. However, a number of powerful food trade associations including the bakers, frozen food, dairy producers, the Meat Institute and the Restaurant Association, are working hard to kill off FDA’s work on short-term sodium reduction goals by way of lobbying the White House Office of Management and Budget. The issue of sodium reduction targets has brought forth a lot of dissension in the food industry ranks, which can only help the efforts by equally powerful public health groups who are calling for action to reduce overall incidence of cardiovascular disease.

Woe For Plastic Bags

I’ve been in the food industry for more than 45 years and remember quite vividly when plastic bags were first introduced in the 1970s. The public hated the bags because they ripped open quite easily and could not stand up in kitchen trash cans, unlike brown paper bags. So, the plastic bag industry revamped the plastic bag composition to make them much stronger. The public soon became enamored with them and before one knew it, a majority of shoppers favored plastic over paper at the checkout. This is still the case today. However, the environmental movement (i.e. – Save the Earth groups) picked up a lot of support and environmentalists started to fight long and hard to totally ban plastic bags. It’s been a decades-long legislative battle, but environmentalists are finally starting to see some wins state-wide and on county and municipal levels. New York state has passed a ban on single-use plastic bags and now follow California and Hawaii. Washington state may be next. Retailers across the country (notably major chains such as Kroger) are now looking to become more environmentally friendly and are starting to let the chips fall where they may at state and local municipal legislative hearings to ban single-use plastic bags. We’ll keep an eye on this issue as more bills are introduced to ban plastic bags as well as polystyrene containers. By the way, if you are a Maryland retailer, be sure to read my closing paragraph at the end of this month’s report.

Coming To Burger King

Advertisement

With all the hype about meatless burgers, Burger King and Red Robin have announced that they will soon be selling the Impossible Burger (a plant-based substitute for meat) with the same amount of protein as the real thing but with 15 percent less fat and 90 percent less cholesterol. This new meatless burger links easily with the public’s clamor for healthier food combined with a way to really help the environment! Fact: meat production is one of the major contributors to climate change and the new meatless burgers create just a fraction of the greenhouse gases that real beef burger processing produces. Watch for the new meatless craze to pick up a lot of speed. Lawmakers ARE watching as now Missouri, Mississippi and South Dakota have passed laws prohibiting “mislabeling” of food products derived from animal cultures or plant-based ingredients. A number of other states (primarily beef-producing states) are currently considering limiting what can be labeled as meat, including Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Virginia, the state of Washington and Wyoming. This new technology is a big deal, folks, and is already shaking up the beef industry! As a sidebar, the USDA’s new deputy undersecretary for food safety, Mindy Brashears, said that her agency is awaiting information from cell-based meat producers regarding such areas as amino acid composition, proteins and shelf life before it can determine how the new product should be labeled.

More Amazing Technology

Technological advancements within the food industry are a frequent occurrence. The exciting news for you techies is that a company in the state of Washington, StixFlesh, has created a new, natural product that can extend the shelf life of certain produce items up to 14 days, reducing the amount that spoils or becomes unsellable. The product is a solution that mimics the metabolites that plants produce to protect themselves from stress caused by transportation, temperature, humidity, light fluctuations, predators and pathogens. The solution is spread on the face-up side of produce stickers and is released slowly over time providing extra protection for the produce. So far, the new technology has been proven particularly effective on fruit and certain vegetables, like avocadoes. Now that is pretty amazing!

Attention Maryland Retailers

The Maryland General Assembly recently concluded its 2019 session and approved a bill to make Maryland the first state in the U.S. to ban polystyrene foam food containers and cups. Foam packaged products made outside of the state – such as cups containing my favorite meal when I attended American University (ramen noodles), can still be sold. The ban takes effect July 1, 2020. (Just before presstime, Maine also enacted legislation to ban styrofoam, which goes into effect in 2021.) Currently Montgomery, Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties already ban foam containers. Maryland lawmakers also changed the age for buying tobacco from 18 to 21 and Howard County will soon join with Montgomery County in charging plastic bag fees at checkout. Finally, a new $11 an hour minimum wage takes effect January 21, 2020 in Maryland.