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.

To many in retailing, Amazon is considered “the giant killer.” One only has to look at the tremendous growth of Amazon and similar online firms delivering general merchandise, food, and meals to be eaten at home. The remaining battlefield is strewn with shuttered restaurants, and food and general merchandise retailers that have either closed shop or reduced their store footprints. Now appearing on the horizon is Amazon’s newest venture – the redemption of food stamps and delivery of food to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients. Who ever thought?

According to an article that appeared in Politico, more than 800,000 SNAP recipients in Washington state will soon be able to redeem their benefits to buy groceries on Amazon, now that the trillion-dollar tech company is expanding its participation in a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) online pilot program. The Amazon project became available to Seattle-area SNAP recipients last month and will soon roll out statewide.

The USDA initiative was part of the 2014 farm bill which contained language to test ways to get food stamp benefits to end users in a more efficient manner. In 2017 the department enlisted a handful of large retailers, including Amazon, Walmart and Safeway, to participate in a pilot program to test the possibility of eventually allowing on-line use of SNAP benefits nationwide. I mentioned this pilot program in my column last April when the trial run launched in New York. It will expand soon to other states including Alabama, Iowa, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey and Oregon. These eight states combined have more than 6 million residents enrolled currently in the SNAP program.

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USDA says that the SNAP benefits will cover the cost of groceries but not service or delivery charges. However, Amazon says it will offer free shipping options and will not require a Prime membership for SNAP users. This test bears watching for sure!

FDA Requests For Comment

Last month the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced requests for public and stakeholder comments on four separate issues. The issues covered: food labeling requirements which determine when a food product is misbranded; juice HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point – an internationally recognized system for reducing the risk of safety hazards in food) procedures, which require the use of HACCP procedures in the processing of fruit and vegetable juices; voluntary qualified importer program, a fee-based program to expedite procedures and approvals for importers of food; and prior notice for Imported human food to comply with the reporting requirements for the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act.

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My advice to your food safety people, including those who oversee government regulatory matters, is to review these four issues and comment accordingly. In addition, the Department of Commerce announced that April 4, 2020 will be the start date for the new import inspection program for tomatoes from Mexico set up under the 2019 Suspension Agreement. The new agreement benefits both countries while protecting U.S. tomato producers from unfair trade.

Dairy Terms For Plant-Based Substitutes

I’ve written a lot recently about plant-based meat and dairy substitutes and this issue continues to generate frequent headlines in both trade journals and the consumer press. Congressional pressure is increasing to prohibit the use of dairy terms like milk and butter for plant-based substitutes like almond milk and vegan butter. Last month a bipartisan group of seven senators sent a letter to the FDA commissioner asking him to follow up on the review of the enforcement of dairy labeling rules started by his predecessor. And days later after the official letter was sent, as reported in Politico’s Morning Agriculture, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing to discuss legislation to stop non-milk products from being labeled with dairy terms. These separate actions speak to the deep concern of the dairy industry, which is broad-based and politically active, about the threat posed by plant-based substitutes.

Dietary Supplements Criticized

In late January, after last month’s press deadline, the Washington Post published a major story on the health value or lack-of-value of dietary supplements. The Post’s headline, “Most dietary supplements don’t do anything. Why do we spend $35 billion a year on them?” says it all. The reporter interviewed experts from the National Institutes of Health, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health and the Council for Responsible Nutrition and concluded that very few of even the most publicized dietary supplements have any real health value. We will watch for reaction on the Hill as we monitor this large segment of the retail food and drug business.

Proposed Budget Introduced

President Trump has introduced his fiscal 2021 budget request to Congress, and it has not been met with open arms, which should come as no surprise. Alas, it is an election year and the president says whatever he believes will bring in the votes. Not so fast, say Hill Democrats. As a matter of fact, it brought quick reaction from House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson. He responded in a rather dramatic way to the budget announcement which calls for an 8.2 percent reduction in discretionary spending at USDA as well as proposing billions in mandatory cuts to crop insurance, conservation spending, disaster assistance, and the SNAP program.

“This is what happens when ideologues decide to cut programs just for the sake of cutting. What’s worse is the president is proposing all these cuts without any attempt to balance the budget,” commented Peterson.

A Ray Of Sunshine

Despite the bad news above, Politico reported that new legislation introduced by a group of Democrats last month would remove requirements from three social welfare programs, including SNAP, that benefit recipients’ own assets below certain thresholds to be eligible to participate in federal assistance programs. The group of Democrat representatives and senators said their bill is an alternative vision to the Trump administration’s budget proposals to rein in federal assistance for low-income families.

Besides SNAP, the measure would also end asset tests for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Programs. Other eligibility criteria such as income and certain work requirements would not change, Politico added. The bill would also increase the asset limits applied to the Supplemental Security Income Program for the elderly and people with disabilities. It is predicted that the measure will pass the House but get hung up in the Senate.

FDA Boot Camp

The American Conference Institute’s (ACI) popular “FDA Boot Camp” is scheduled to take place from March 24 to 25 at the Double Tree by Hilton Hotel in New York City. The conference is billed as the premier event to provide food industry food safety and government affairs professionals with a strategic roadmap to navigate the difficult terrain of FDA regulatory law. The so-called boot camp, now in its 35th iteration, can be very useful to facilitate turning the regulatory knowledge gained by your attendance into actual situations you encounter in real life while on the job. If you want more information or are interested in attending, contact ACI at www.americanconference.com. I attended the conference many years ago and found it extremely worthwhile.

Ending Note

We all know that there is a very high number of obese Americans residing in the good old U.S. of A. According to a report published at the end of 2019 that crossed my desk and written by a team of medical scientists, nearly half of all adults by 2030 in the U.S. will be obese, and close to 1 in 4 will be severely obese. If that’s the direction we are headed, let’s all head to the gym! Seriously folks, we know that more shoppers today are reading labels to make informed choices but surely more needs to be done to improve American diets and encourage healthier lifestyles. Add THAT to your marketing plans and healthy eating initiatives for 2020, ladies and gentlemen!

Barry Scher is associated with thepublic policy firm of Policy-Solutions LLC and may be reached atBscher@policy-solutions.net.