March 1, 2016
Each year, Congress uses the annual appropriations process to decide funding levels and make certain policy decisions for federal programs. Food and agriculture programs, of course, are no exception. This spring, the appropriations committees in the House and Senate will make critical funding decisions on rural development, nutrition, research, conservation, and many other programs administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Following the release of USDA’s funding requests for fiscal year 2017 (FY17), the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees in the House and Senate hold a series of hearings to examine the requested funds and their suggested purposes. At the time of this posting the Senate Subcommittee has yet to begin hearings; however, the House Subcommittee has already begun their process and held several meetings to discuss the USDA’s requests.
Last week, several food and agriculture agencies came before the House Subcommittee to defend their programs and budgetary proposals, including: the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Following is a summary of the aforementioned hearings:
Much of the discussion at the FNS hearing focused on USDA’s newly proposed rule to disallow multi-ingredient food items from qualifying as a single food item (ex. qualifying pizza or macaroni and cheese as a “grain”) for purposes of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Under the new rule, grocery stores and other food retailers would effectively need to stock more staple, single-ingredient foods to accept SNAP payments.
FNS Under Secretary, Kevin Concannon, also spent time in the hearing defending the Administration’s proposal to dramatically expand USDA’s summer meals program for children. Currently, 21 million students receive subsidized school meals during the school year; however, only 4 million of those students receive meals through USDA’s summer food program.
Concannon also highlighted the success of the farm-to-school program, noting that schools are now purchasing upwards of $600 million locally.
During the FSIS hearing, Representatives Sam Farr (D-CA) and Chellie Pingree (D-ME) emphasized the importance of food safety and their desire that FSIS do more to support existing and increase the growth of small and very small meat processing plants. Congressman Farr pointed out that these plants are especially important for the rapidly growing organic and grass fed meat industries.
Congresswoman Pingree also expressed strong support for USDA’s small plant “help desk”, which she said is vitally important to providing technical assistance and helping niche processors, farmers, and ranchers efficiently reach local and regional markets. The Congresswoman identified the lack of local processing facilities as a major contributor to the current meat-processing bottleneck that forces producers to either make very long trips, or become reliant on custom facilities, which greatly limits their growth.
Following the conversation about small and very small processing, Pingree pivoted to the much-contested issue of food labeling. The Congresswoman pointedly asked Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety Al Almanza to explain FSIS’s role in defining what “grass fed” meat means, for the purposes of labeling food products.
Recently, the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) repealed the national meat label claim standard for grass-fed meat, a standard that had been relied upon since 2006. AMS suggested the primary reason for this reversal was the agency’s realization that FSIS, and not AMS, has primary responsibility for labeling standards.
On a recent, joint FSIS/AMS conference call with stakeholders, FSIS indicated that it would not approve any grass fed labels that used the term, but were not at least 99 percent (the AMS standard) percent grass fed and complied with the revoked AMS standard, unless the deviations are detailed on the label. Congresswoman Pingree asked Deputy Under Secretary Almanza if this was accurate, to which the Under Secretary responded, “We’re not changing anything.”
According to Almanza’s testimony, the agency will decide in mid-summer whether or not to issue a definition for grass fed meat. The Under Secretary also noted that the agency would base its decision on demand for such a label standard. NSAC will be offering FSIS detailed recommendations on how they should use the now revoked AMS label standard moving forward.
In addition to hearing from FSIS representatives, the Subcommittee also heard from Dr. Stephen Ostroff, Acting Commissioner of the FDA. During his testimony Congresswoman Pingree asked Dr. Ostroff to explain the food safety training process for small and mid-sized producers, noting that these producers are very concerned about the implementation process for FDA’s new food safety regulations. Dr. Ostroff echoed the Congresswoman’s statements that it is necessary to train producers at the farm level to be the most effective. He also consented that the best training process would be to provide the maximum support for farmers up front, rather than trying to correct problems after they had occurred.
NSAC strongly agrees that food safety training must occur in tandem with the roll out of the new food safety regulations. We are therefore advocating to the Appropriations Committees that $10 million be allocated for the Food Safety Outreach Program in the FY17 budget; funding through which the USDA would offer competitive grants to farmer-based organizations and other entities to develop and implement food safety training and technical assistance to producers.
On Friday, February 26, NRCS Chief Jason Weller testified in front of the House Subcommittee. Chief Weller defended USDA’s two-part request that no cuts be made to farm bill conservation programs, such as the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and also for a 2.5 percent increase in funding for Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA). We strongly support USDA’s request for both farm bill conservation and CTA funding in FY17.
In the hearing, Representative David Young (R-IA) used his time to speak about the ongoing CSP overhaul, noting that NRCS rightly delayed the planned roll out of the overhaul in order to gather more feedback from stakeholders.
“We need to get this right,” said Rep. Young. “We want to make sure that the voices of the stakeholders are being heard.”
Chief Weller agreed with Rep. Young and responded that he delayed the overhaul for exactly that reason. The Chief explained that NRCS would be soliciting feedback from producers in the spring and summer, before rolling out major changes.
Representatives Pingree and Farr also asked questions about important CSP issues. Rep. Pingree referred to the addition of a new payment minimum of $1,500 for all successful CSP applicants, noting that it provides a significant opportunity for smaller acreage farms, and especially for more labor and management-intensive operations. NSAC was the group that recommended the new minimum payment rate and is doing its part to publicize it through our promotion of the FY16 sign up process, which ends on March 31.
Representative Farr inquired about the role of organic production in CSP. Rep. Farr noted that 25 percent of all acres funded through CSP in California last year were organic – well above the 2015 average of less then 1 percent of all acres enrolled in the program.
“I appreciate NRCS’s efforts to make CSP more accessible, flexible, and farmer-friendly,” said Farr, “but I also want to ensure that key conservation activities that benefit organic producers are not eliminated in this process.”
Rep. Farr urged NRCS to retain CSP enhancements such as transition to organic cropping and grazing and organic integrated pest management (IPM), and also to increase the amount of conservation performance points that producers receive for implementing these activities.
Representative Chellie Pingree noted that enrollment in the EQIP Organic Initiative had been declining for several years and asked Chief Weller what NRCS was doing to reverse this trend. Chief Weller responded that NRCS is partnering with organizations such as NSAC member group, Oregon Tilth, to develop materials and provide technical assistance related to conservation on organic farms. The Chief also referred to a new handbook for NRCS field staff, a resource which NSAC member organizations developed collaboratively with NRCS staff.
This week, representatives from USDA’s Marketing and Regulatory Programs (MRP) will come before the House Subcommittee on Appropriations to defend their FY17 funding requests. Witnesses from will include MRP Undersecretary Ed Avalos and the heads of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Agriculture Marketing Service, and Grain Inspection, Packer and Stockyards Administration.
In the Senate, the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee will hold a round table discussion with major industry representatives from the cotton and cattle industries, among others.