GMO labeling deal ‘close’
With help from Catherine Boudreau, Ian Kullgren, Jason Huffman and Kathryn Wolfe
STABENOW: GMO LABELING DEAL ‘CLOSE’: Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said late Monday that she and Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) are “narrowing the issues” surrounding GMO labeling legislation and are “close” to reaching a deal — but have not shared a draft in the Senate. She said they have been meeting constantly. But questions remain over one of the most fundamental issues: whether on-pack labels should be part of a mandatory disclosure system. Come July 1 on-pack labeling will become the de facto national standard, as food and beverage manufacturers will be forced to comply with Vermont’s law or potentially face a $1,000 fine per day, per product.
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Hope for a voluntary labeling standard faded in March when legislation offered by Roberts failed to secure the 60 votes needed to move forward. Shortly thereafter, companies like Mars and General Mills announced they would start labeling products containing GMOs, while PepsiCo appeared to quietly make the move in April. The pro-labeling camp is keeping track. Just Label It, a coalition of consumer advocacy, environmental and organic industry groups, has created a Facebook page featuring photos of products featuring disclosures about genetically engineered ingredients. The Grocery Manufacturers Association and biotech and agricultural industry groups worry that these products will be unfairly stigmatized by anti-GMO activists and companies will reformulate away from biotech ingredients.
Tick tock: There are 10 calendar days left before Vermont’s law takes effect, but Stabenow and Roberts really only have four legislative days left, considering the House won’t be in session all next week, the Coalition for Safe Affordable Food warned. This all feels a bit like the movie “Groundhog Day,” right?
In New Hampshire, Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte is being targeted by Food Democracy Now for supporting Roberts’ voluntary labeling bill earlier this year. The group is funding billboard ads featuring Ayotte and highlighting what it says is more than $10,000 in campaign donations she received from Monsanto — an effort to make a mark in Ayotte’s tight reelection race against Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan.
HAPPY TUESDAY, JUNE 21! Welcome to Morning Ag, where your host has completely given up keeping tabs on new restaurants in This Town. Apparently 75 opened in the Washington area this spring (!!). It’s too much. But please do us a favor and send along your favorites. You know the deal: thoughts, news, tips? Send them to email@example.com or @hbottemiller. Follow the team at @Morning_Ag.
GAME OF DRONES: The FAA’s commercial small drones rule could be announced officially any day now, but details are beginning to leak out to industry sources. They include provisions that were basically expected: Drones will have to be registered and marked, operated within visual line of sight, and won’t require an airworthiness certificate. However, drone operators will have to pass a knowledge test every two years and obtain an “operator certificate” that will feature a small drone rating.
Amazon and Google may not be so thrilled about these policies, which could interfere with their plans to use drones across much longer distances for delivery services. The rule for small unmanned aircraft systems, once established, will enable routine commercial drone operations, and will be regularly reevaluated by the advisory committee the FAA set up in May.
The U.S. agriculture industry has been watching the regulatory developments surrounding drones with much interest. Precision agriculture has the potential to account for almost 90 percent of all civilian drone use by 2020, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the group that represents drone manufacturers, estimated in an early 2013 report.
** A message from the Organic Trade Association: Producing food that meets the USDA organic label is a choice for farmers. And consumers want that label to mean something. That’s why Congress set up the National Organic Standards Board. They spent over a decade listening to views before recommending new organic animal welfare standards. Now, those standards are under attack. Learn more at www.ota.com/AnimalWelfare **
CALIFORNIA COMPANY RECALLS CATFISH: A company based in Santa Ana, Calif., is recalling 26,000 pounds of Vietnamese catfish that skirted inspection by the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service, the agency said in a statement Monday. According to FSIS, the problem was discovered when company and import workers noticed shipments of Swai, a catfish-like species from Asia, entering the U.S. without undergoing government inspection. The fish was packaged in Vietnam and distributed to Aldi stores in Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. “The products were imported from Vietnam and failed to comply with FSIS requirements concerning residue sampling and testing prior to entry into United States commerce,” the agency statement said.
The announcement comes gift-wrapped to defenders of the new protocol for catfish inspections that was passed in the 2008 farm bill and is now under attack in Congress. The Senate voted to repeal the program in May, pointing to numerous Government Accountability Office reports calling it duplicative of the FDA program for inspecting all other seafood. More than half the House Republican caucus has asked Speaker Paul Ryan to take it up. But proponents argue that Asian catfish is less safe and needs more thorough inspections from the USDA (though there’s debate about the differences between the two processes).
BAYER CRITICIZED FOR ANTI-MEAT TWEET: Bayer Crop Science’s Twitter account sparked outrage among farmers Monday by tweeting out a Vox story that suggested going vegetarian could cut an individual’s carbon footprint in half. “[R]eal stupid to piss off majority of farmers and ranchers by trashing meat,” tweeted Bill Graff, a midwest farmer who has a podcast. His was one of more than 100 angry tweets the company received.
Bayer’s Twitter account backtracked, apologizing several times, but Reuters picked up the story late Monday, noting the “gaffe comes as Bayer AG is trying to acquire Monsanto Co., the world’s largest seed maker. The potential tie-up has faced resistance from some farmers worried about consolidation in the agriculture sector.” More here.
SUGAR FIGHTS BACK: The Sugar Association is seizing on new research that shows the American obesity epidemic is worsening as evidence sugar is not the main culprit in rising obesity rates. The group on Monday pointed to a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which indicated the prevalence of obesity among adults increased 100 percent between 1999 and 2014. The Sugar Association notes that per capita consumption of caloric sweeteners declined 15 percent over the same period. The decline followed an increase in per capita caloric consumption for several prior years. The USDA’s Economic Research Service says the reduced sugar intake was due in large part to the decline of carbonated soft drinks.
“Sugar has been targeted as Public Enemy No. 1 in the fight against obesity,” the association said today in an email to reporters. “But is it really where we should be placing all the blame? Take a step back and the numbers just don’t add up.”
USDA TO DIP INTO EXTRA FUND TO MEET FARM LOANS: Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has informed Congress that he plans to tap into a $500 million discretionary fund to help USDA’s Farm Service Agency deal with a projected shortfall in money available for guaranteed loans, Agri-Pulse reports. Thanks to “low commodity prices and a dramatic decline in farm income over the past two years,” FSA has just about run out of the $2 billion Congress approved for its loan program three months before the end of the fiscal year, according to the news service. Eight national farm and financial groups asked Congress in June for more funds for operating loans.
CALL ON CUBA: Acting USDA Deputy Secretary Michael Scuse is set to hold a conference call at 1 p.m. today to discuss how small ag businesses might be affected by new U.S. trade relations with Cuba. The call comes amid a wave of questions about trade with the once-off-limits country, including the untapped organics market. As Pro Ag reported, a big obstacle will be reconciling organics standards between the two countries, a process that could take years.
THANK THE SWISS FOR CUBAN COFFEE: Speaking of Cuba, Nespresso, a Swiss-based company, announced Monday it plans to sell long-restricted Cuban coffee in the United States as soon as this fall. The coffee’s availability is due in part to a regulatory change, published in April, that removed coffee from a list of items barred from being imported from Cuba.
Many of Cuba’s farms are managed by small cooperative groups that sell their products to the Cuban government, which either distributes them on the island or exports them around the world, USA Today explains in an article about the announcement. Nespresso plans to “begin its Cuba experiment by buying coffee beans from European importers, roasting the beans, packaging the coffee in pods and selling them in the United States,” the newspaper reports. Read more from USA Today here.
STATE VETS CRY FOUL OVER ORGANIC PROPOSAL: Opponents of the Agriculture Department’s organic animal welfare proposal have allies among state veterinarians. In comments filed on the rule this month, the National Assembly of State Animal Health Officials and several individual state veterinarians say “outdoor access” provisions would undermine biosecurity instructions that the USDA gave to poultry producers after the avian influenza outbreak last year, as well as FDA requirements for preventing salmonella. The USDA in the proposal acknowledges that direct outdoor exposure and contact with wild birds and animals is a known risk, wrote Susan Keller, president of the NASAHO. “It must be questioned whether this proposal emphasizes marketing above poultry health, and if so, whether the risk to the entire national poultry industry has been considered.”
Under the rule, covered porches or concrete patches with roofs above them — systems used by many organic egg producers — would no longer meet National Organic Program standards for “outdoor access.” The Organic Trade Association contends the proposal reflects consumer expectations for animal welfare when they buy organic products, and the USDA has defended its proposal as a response to recommendations made by the National Organic Standards Board and USDA’s Inspector General.
But larger organic egg producers argue they don’t have the money or the space to comply with the new standards, and say they’d be forced out of business. The USDA recently extended the comment period for the controversial rule to July 13, though more than 3,800 comments have already been received. Read the USDA proposal here. Pros can brush up on the controversy here.
LAWMAKERS PUSH PENTAGON TO END LIVE ANIMAL MEDICAL TRAINING: Secretary of Defense Ash Carter will be sent a letter today from 71 House members who want the Pentagon to accelerate its plan to phase out use of live animals in combat medical training, Pro Defense’s Bryan Bender reports. “Ending the use of live animals in military training and transitioning to simulations will increase military readiness and combat effectiveness, reduce training costs, and save the lives of countless animals,” said Rep. Joe Heck (R-Nev.), a doctor who serves on the House Armed Services Committee and spearheaded the letter.
The Pentagon previously committed to reducing and ultimately replacing animals in combat military training, a practice long decried by animal rights activists. The letter notes that the Defense Department’s last policy change in this regard came in mid-2014. “However, continued findings since this time have shown the practicality and effectiveness of simulation as a replacement for animal use,” the letter says. Pros can read Bender’s story here.
MA’s INSTANT OATS
— Kellogg launches a venture capital firm, which could invest $100 million in food startups, TechCrunch reports.
— As food crisis worsens, Venezuelans loot nearly empty stores, NPR reports.
— A school lunch provider has issued a Listeria recall for 45 different products distributed to 29 states, Food Safety New reports.
— Vox does a deep dive on how LaCroix took over the world.
— Modern Farmer takes a look at how some companies are re-designing how pigs are raised.
THAT’S ALL FOR MA! See you again soon! In the meantime, drop your host and the rest of the team a line: firstname.lastname@example.org and @ceboudreau; email@example.com and @jennyhops; firstname.lastname@example.org and @hbottemiller; email@example.com and @iankullgren; firstname.lastname@example.org and @mjkorade; and email@example.com and @jsonhuffman. You can also follow @POLITICOPro and @Morning_Ag on Twitter.
** A message from the Organic Trade Association: The Organic Trade Association supports the process to strengthen and improve organic animal welfare standards. That’s why organic farmers supported The National Organic Standards Board’s 2011 recommendation to USDA clarifying standards for indoor and outdoor space requirements for organic poultry and livestock. We are pleased that the USDA has moved forward with rulemaking based on this recommendation. The Organic Trade Association opposes any amendment to the Agriculture Appropriations bill that would compromise these animal welfare standards and harm the integrity of the USDA Organic Label that consumers trust. Learn more at http://ota.com/AnimalWelfare **