Washington Insider-- Tuesday

Warnings of Food Safety Problems

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

McConnell's Comments Cast More Doubt on Lame-Duck TPP Vote

The possible consideration of legislation to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) pact in a lame-duck session of Congress was dealt a new blow when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., again suggested it is not the cards.

McConnell made his most recent remarks on TPP at the annual Kentucky Farm Bureau Ham Breakfast. "The current agreement, the trans-Pacific agreement, which has some serious flaws, will not be acted upon this year, but it will still be around," McConnell said. "It can be massaged, changed, worked on during the next administration."

McConnell's words suggested TPP could be considered in the future, William Reinsch, a distinguished fellow with the Stimson Center, told Bloomberg BNA. Reinsch remained unconvinced that McConnell would continue to oppose lame-duck consideration after the election, especially if Republican concerns with TPP are addressed.

Reinsch further said McConnell has no incentive to say anything before the election indicating lame-duck consideration of TPP is in the cards, especially with political opposition surrounding the pact, which is evidenced in recent campaign rhetoric by both candidates.

Some of the strongest Republican concerns raised about TPP come from Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who believes the patent duration provided in the pact for for biologic drugs is too short. Reinsch said addressing Hatch's concerns could prove pivotal. "Will [McConnell] say the same thing after November 8, particularly if Hatch is taken care of?" Reinsch noted. "Nobody knows, and I wouldn't bet either way."

White House Seeks Commodity Credit Corporation Funding Replenishment

The USDA entity tasked with helping farmers weather unstable agricultural commodity prices will run out of money soon, unless the government moves up its reimbursement as part of an end-of-year funding bill.

Contained in a list of requested additions, known as anomalies, to a continuing resolution (CR) to fund the government into Fiscal year 2017, the Obama administration said that the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) would exceed its $30 billion borrowing limit during the period of the CR. The fund is always replenished by an annual reimbursement.

The request calls for the CR to accelerate reimbursement of the CCC so that it can continue to operate past Oct. 1, 2016, when the majority of its first-quarter Fiscal Year 2017 payments are due. The CCC would typically receive reimbursement after it submits its financial statement for reimbursement in early November.

"Without the anomaly, CCC would have to stop making payments as soon as the borrowing ceiling is reached, posing a serious risk for the farmers and ranchers supported by these programs," the document said.

Washington Insider: Warnings of Food Safety Problems

There has been a lot of heated discussion recently about labeling foods for a range of purposes generally unrelated to food safety, including the continuing battle over food technology. However, Food Safety News (FSN) is reporting this week on a different kind of labeling that is falling short, and that is the unpleasant duty by the industry to warn customers about food safety recalls.

The FSN article reports on a new survey of 32 leading grocery chains about their in-store recall notification practices. The survey was by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group formed in 1971. It finds policies of several companies so "woefully inadequate" that consumers may or may not hear about even serious food safety problems.

The center was concerned that some important features of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), the sweeping reform of food safety laws that was signed into law in 2011 are not being fully implemented. The law included a number of provisions that shifted the focus of food safety efforts from responses to contamination to efforts to prevent it. Notifying consumers when products have been found to be contaminated is an important part of the industry's new responsibilities, CSPI notes.

Some stores routinely post recall notices where shoppers are likely to see them. Yet others, such as Pittsburgh, PA-based Giant Eagle, do not. These including Whole Foods and Aldi who "would not reveal their recall notification policies," CSPI says, and this risks serious food safety loopholes.

While most chains responding to the CSPI survey said they post product recall notices in their stores, "the placement varies." Some post them at store entrances, some at cash registers and some where the recalled product had been removed from store shelves. CSPI suggests these rules need to be tightened.

The new food safety law requires FDA to put together recall notices based on producer information and expects grocery chains of 15 stores or larger to keep the notices in easily visible locations for two weeks. However, CSPI says that FDA has yet to adopt any such notification system even though the FSMA was signed into law in 2011.

In a letter sent Wednesday to FDA Deputy Commissioner Stephen Ostroff, CSPI's senior staff attorney, David Plunkett, wrote that FDA has so far only conducted one public hearing and issued an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking about the recall notification process. "We surveyed the leading chains for the report and found that most already post notices in the store. The practice, however, is not universal, demonstrating that voluntary actions, while laudable, cannot replace mandatory rules," Plunkett told Ostroff in the letter.

CSPI noted that they had also asked retailers if they use data collected by loyalty cards or other programs to directly notify consumers who have purchased recalled foods. The top three, which are Walmart, Kroger and Costco, all said that they do directly notify consumers. Others, such as Publix, H-E-B and Whole Foods, don't have loyalty cards or frequent shopper programs that collect data. Food Lion, Cub Foods and Winn-Dixie, which indicated that they do collect such data, didn't disclose whether they use it to notify consumers about recalls, CSPI reported.

CSPI recommended that consumers watch for recall notices in supermarkets and safely dispose of, or return, recalled products, and that consumers should make sure that stores loyalty programs have accurate contact information on file.

Given the amount of interest consumer advocates claim in consumers' "right to know" about food contents, it is possible that the CSPI report will become a best seller and that firms that do not make serious efforts to inform consumers of recalls will be punished. It is particularly surprising that retailers with prominent "healthy food" profiles would be slow to inform consumers of severe potential health threats.

Still, CSPI is right that FDA should be much more active on this issue and press the industry to insure that consumers are fully warned when such threats occur. Certainly, an effective food safety system is in the interest of producers nationwide, and FDA's response to this concern should be watched carefully, Washington Insider believes.

Want to keep up with events in Washington and elsewhere throughout the day? See DTN Top Stories, our frequently updated summary of news developments of interest to producers. You can find DTN Top Stories in DTN Ag News, which is on the Main Menu on classic DTN products and on the News and Analysis Menu of DTN's Professional and Producer products. DTN Top Stories is also on the home page and news home page of online.dtn.com. Subscribers of MyDTN.com should check out the US Ag Policy, US Farm Bill and DTN Ag News sections on their News Homepage.

If you have questions for DTN Washington Insider, please email edit@dtn.com