Washington Insider --Wednesday

What About Animal Welfare?

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

GIPSA Rule Comment Period Extended

The deadline for submitting comments on a regulation related to the buying and selling of livestock was extended by the Trump administration, a move hailed by the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), which opposes the Obama-era rule.

The Farmer Fair Practices Rules, written by USDA's Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA), include two proposed regulations and an interim final rule.

NPPC is most concerned with the latter, which would broaden the scope of the Packers and Stockyards Act (PSA) of 1921 on the use of "unfair, unjustly discriminatory or deceptive practices" and "undue or unreasonable preferences or advantages." Specifically, the regulation would deem such actions violations of federal law even if they did not harm competition or cause competitive injury, prerequisites for winning PSA cases.

"We're very pleased that the Trump administration has extended the time we have to educate regulators about the devastating effects this rule would have on America's pork producers," said NPPC President John Weber. "The regulation likely would restrict the buying and selling of livestock, lead to consolidation of the livestock industry -- putting farmers out of business -- and increase consumer prices for meat."

In 2010, USDA proposed several PSA provisions -- collectively known as the GIPSA Rule -- that Congress mandated in the 2008 Farm Bill -- eliminating the need to prove a competitive injury to win a PSA lawsuit was not one of them. Congress actually rejected such a "no competitive injury" provision during debate on the Farm Bill. Further, eight federal appeals courts have held that harm to competition must be an element of a PSA case.

The deadline for submitting public comments on the Farmer Fair Practices Rules is now extended to March 24 from February 21, and the effective date of the interim final rule was pushed back to April 22 from February 21.


EU Open to Trade Deal with China: Official

The possibility of a trade deal between the European Union (EU) and China is still open, provided such a deal is "fair," European Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem said in a speech in Brussels.

Malmstroem welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping's commitment to free trade and rejection of protectionism at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January -- in contrast to U.S. President Donald Trump's threats of imposing punitive tariffs on China, though she did not mention Trump specifically.

"If others around the world want to use trade as a weapon, I want to use it as a tonic, a vital ingredient for prosperity and progress," Malmstroem said.

China has to walk the walk and match its rhetoric with reforms, she cautioned. "If rising protectionism from elsewhere is a threat to the Chinese economy, we stand ready to engage and fight against it together," she noted. "If others are closing their doors, ours is still open. As long as the trade is fair. We will give China every opportunity to uphold its pledge against protectionism."

The EU is China's biggest trading partner and China is the EU's second largest after the U.S. "Many barriers and irritants remain to EU-China trade. We are far from balance, a reciprocal approach," Malmstroem said.

EU trade deficit in goods hit a record 180 billion euros ($193 billion) in 2015. Malmstroem noted she does not see trade deficits as inherently bad, but added that the EU could not be naive about open trade.

Washington Insider: What About Animal Welfare?

It seems certain that Gov. Sonny Purdue, nominee for the job of Secretary of Agriculture, had nothing to do with USDA's website purge of animal welfare information but you can bet that he will be asked it when he is examined by the Senate. The Associated Press is reporting this week that on Friday USDA abruptly removed inspection reports and other information from its website about the treatment of animals at thousands of research laboratories, zoos, dog breeding operations and other facilities across the United States.

When asked why, USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service cited court rulings and privacy laws and claimed that the decision was the result of a "comprehensive review" that took place over the past year.

It said the removed documents, which also included records of enforcement actions against violators of the Animal Welfare Act and the Horse Protection Act, would now be accessible only via Freedom of Information Act requests. Those can take years to be approved.

"We remain equally committed to being transparent and responsive to our stakeholders' informational needs, and maintaining the privacy rights of individuals with whom we come in contact," the Department said.

Records that had been available were frequently used by animal welfare advocates to monitor government regulation of animal treatment at circuses, scientific labs and zoos. Journalists have used the documents to expose violations at universities. In addition, the public could also use the online database to search for information about dog breeders, as could pet stores. Seven states currently require pet stores to source puppies from breeders with clean USDA inspection reports, according to the Humane Society of the United States, a requirement that could now be impossible to meet, AP says.

So, animal welfare organizations quickly condemned the removal of the information, which they called unexpected. They say they will not allow animal abuse to go unchecked.

In the meantime, with no secretary on board, numerous groups are hammering USDA. "The USDA action cloaks even the worst puppy mills in secrecy and allows abusers of Tennessee walking horses, zoo animals and lab animals to hide even the worst track records in animal welfare," John Goodwin, senior director of the Humane Society's Stop Puppy Mills Campaign complained. The group uses the federal records, as well as state inspection reports, to publish its annual "Horrible Hundred" dog breeding operations that have been cited for welfare violations.

Kathy Guillermo, the senior vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said USDA is guilty of "a shameful attempt to keep the public from knowing when and which laws and regulations have been violated. Many federally registered and licensed facilities have long histories of violations that have caused terrible suffering."

So, now the question seems to be, "who did it?" AP says it is unclear whether the decision to remove the animal-related records was driven by newly hired Trump administration officials, or someone else. When asked questions about the change, a USDA-APHIS representative referred back to the department's statement. The Associated Press reported that a department spokeswoman declined to say whether the removal was temporary or permanent.

While advocates of animal welfare are vocal in their criticism, advocates for businesses that rely on animals, including agriculture and exotic pet breeders, have long resented government oversight that they say is overly aggressive and influenced by animal protection groups.

For example, last month, Mindy Patterson, the president of the Cavalry Group, which describes its aim as "protecting and defending animal enterprise," wrote a column accusing the USDA of having "succumbed to the pressure of animal rights extremists." She said public USDA records had allowed groups like the Humane Society and PETA to vilify businesses by publishing their addresses and photographs of their locations and animals.

The column was published on the website Joe For America, AP says. The website is maintained by Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, an Ohio man better known as "Joe the plumber" since a 2008 encounter with then-presidential candidate Barack Obama that made Wurzelbacher a symbol of frustrated American taxpayers.

Increasingly, it seems unnecessary to wonder what Gov. Perdue will do with his time when he is fully accredited as Secretary. In addition to working with an industry stressed with relatively low prices, he is being pressed to take on issues regarding farm labor and immigration; how to maintain and improve overseas markets; how to label foods made with GMOs; and now his agency seems to be painting a target on his back inviting criticism regarding animal welfare.

So, he may be forgiven for wishing for the good old days when all he had to worry about was drought in Georgia, Washington Insider believes.

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