Washington Insider -- Friday

Fight over GMO Labels Intensifies

Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

RMA’s Willis: Using Technology, Data-Mining to Keep Program Integrity

Using technology and data-mining are two of the ways that USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) is utilizing to make sure the integrity of the federal crop insurance program is intact, according to RMA Administrator Brandon Willis.

RMA has continued to deploy new technologies as they become available, Willis said even though they have yet to utilize drones to a major degree. “We are not there yet,” Willis said relative to the use of drones, noting there are some “legal prohibitions” yet to their use that is keeping them as an area the agency is studying. However, he noted that “on the non-federal crop insurance side, those that have private policies, they are being used. But we at RMA are not spending a lot of time on them yet.”

Willis said RMA is still continuing to examine their use and will be ready when it fits with the “law of the land.” He also noted that the answer on the use of drones could well be different if the question were asked three or four years from now.

Technology remains an important area utilized by RMA, Willis said. “Data mining is one in particular. We are trying to move that to the forefront. We want to run the program in a way that prevents waste, fraud and abuse.”

As for data mining, Willis reminded, “we are continuing to expand the use [of technology]. We have a small agency – only 450 employees – and using big-data and data mining allows us to spend our time wisely.”

One of the key areas for data mining is to look for anomalies. “When we find those, that doesn’t mean there is something wrong,” Willis warned. Approved Insurance Providers (AIPs) are “doing spot-checks based on data mining,” and Willis reiterated that for RMA, it allows them to use their time in an effective way.

Satellites are another tool used by RMA, Willis added. “The agency as a whole tries to use new technology,” he said.


Several Major Food Companies, Grocers Announce Cage-Free Egg Plans

The list of food companies announcing plans to transition to cage-free eggs has grown, with grocery chains Kroger, Albertsons and Delhaize America, and food conglomerate Kraft Heinz and Schwan Food Company all announcing this week they intend to transition their entire supply chains to cage-free eggs by 2025.

“Making the move to source our eggs exclusively from cage-free hens builds on progress made by both Kraft and Heinz in previous years and reinforces our continuing pursuit of animal welfare improvements throughout our supply chain,” Kraft Heinz said of the move in a statement.

“As our customer base has been moving to cage-free at an increasing rate, Kroger’s goal is to transition to a 100 percent cage-free egg supply chain by 2025.” And, Kroger noted that 15 percent of the eggs it sold in 2015 were cage free.

Delhaize America operates the Food Lion and Hannaford grocery chains, and indicated that it may even complete a transition to cage free eggs ahead of the stated 2025 goal. Albertsons and Schwan Food Company noted in their statements that their plans to transition to cage-free eggs are contingent on “available supply.”


Washington Insider: Fight over GMO Labels Intensifies

Well, confusion continues to mount concerning Congressional efforts to pre-empt state GMO labeling laws. The House passed its preemption bill some time ago, and the Senate Ag committee recently approved what observers say is a “part of one” that is expected to be modified on the floor.

However, Bloomberg is reporting that is the easy part—and, that defining a compromise package that the Senate could actually pass will be much more difficult.

The ag committee itself couldn’t agree on such a package since ranking Democrat Debbie Stabenow of Michigan was unable to make a deal with committee chair, Kansas Republican Pat Roberts. So, the panel decided to leave final details to the full Senate. Senate leadership hasn’t announced any floor time for a bill at this point.

Bloomberg calls the situation chaotic, “with everyone calling for urgency before Vermont’s state GMO labeling law goes into effect July 1” but no clear path to law evident. Compromise proposals abound, including at least one that seems strange in its proposed use of “asterisks and parentheses” on ingredient labels to soften consumer concerns. Bloomberg concludes that the jury is out whether Congress is “more interested in a solution or in press releases from members saying they did what they could.”

Food Safety News (FSN) seems somewhat more optimistic and is reporting that ag chair Pat Roberts is arguing that his Senate bill deals with an important “market issue” and has a responsibility to ensure that the “national market can work for everyone, including farmers, manufacturers, retailers and consumers.” He said the alternative is to allow a state-by-state patchwork of labeling laws to play out.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who supports the Roberts bill, argues that state GMO label proposals are already patchy and that dairy products, for example, are “either specifically included or excluded from requirements depending on how important the industry is to a given state.” She thinks the Roberts bill will be successfully amended on the Senate floor and she says she is open to an amendment by Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., to include a national, voluntary bioengineered food labeling standard.

FSN says that, in the meantime, state lawmakers are “picking around the edges” and that by the end of the 2015 legislative season, the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) reported 101 bills were introduced in state houses to address GMOs in some way. Of the 15 bills adopted, nine urged that science-based data be used in all future GMO regulation while four focused on labeling standards. NCSL also reported that 57 bills were carried over and might be pending in 2016.

Continuing with the patchwork approach will be costly, according to Roberts. He cited a study that estimated that the cost to consumers would run as much as $82 billion annually or approximately $1,050 for each American family. “Now is not the time for Congress to make food more expensive for anyone—not the consumer, nor the producer,” Roberts said.

Roberts also told the press before moving the bill out of his committee that it had the support of 652 food and agricultural organizations, “representing one of the largest coalitions ever to support a single congressional act.”

However, Roberts’ opponents say state disclosure requirements provide transparency and should not be shutdown. They seem to favor an alternative bill offered by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and include some Democratic heavy-hitters including Vermont’s Patrick Leahy, Montana’s Jon Tester, and California’s Dianne Feinstein.

So, the fight seems to be increasingly intense, with current options anything but transparent, in spite of widespread claims. It would seem that the earlier proposal that Secretary Vilsack mentioned that would require retailers to develop electronic labels that detail production history would both allow retailers to control their labels while making additional information available. However, with both sides of the debate fighting for control of wording, the product coverage and exclusions, as well as the image to be presented, the electronic approach seems to have few backers, at least at this time, Washington Insider believes.

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