Washington Insider -- Monday

Food Protection from Terrorism

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

Sonny Perdue Paperwork Should Be Completed Within a Week

Sonny Perdue, President Donald Trump's choice to lead USDA, has yet to get a confirmation hearing in the Senate Agriculture Committee. The reason is the panel has not yet received all of Perdue's financial and background disclosure documents from the Trump administration, six weeks after Perdue's January 18 nomination.

However, a White House aide said that they may be completed soon.

"We need to get Sonny Perdue on board," Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said at a Feb. 23 field hearing in Kansas on the upcoming farm bill. "We need a new secretary; we need the undersecretaries."

Perdue has already made the rounds on Capitol Hill, meeting with Roberts, ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and other Agriculture Committee members.

A White House aide said the delay is related to a paperwork backlog, as the administration has worked through the other Cabinet nominations. Perdue was the last Cabinet-level nominations announced by Trump. The aide said the administration expects Perdue's paperwork will be delivered to the committee within a week.

Mike Young, acting Agriculture Deputy Secretary at USDA, is heading the department until the Senate confirms a new head.


Bills Introduced in House, Senate for Year-Round E15 Sales

Legislation to extend the Reid Vapor Pressure (RVP) waiver to E15 (fuel containing 85% gasoline and 15% ethanol) was introduced in both the House and Senate Thursday. The Consumer and Fuel Retailer Choice Act (S 517 & HR 1411) would allow retailers to sell E15 year-round.

Under current rules, retailers are unable to sell E15 during summer months and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has said their reading of law is that the 1-pound-per-square-inch (psi) waiver for the summer months only applies to E10 fuel and not to E15.

"As one of America's largest producers of ethanol, Nebraska can provide renewable solutions for our nation's energy needs," Sen. Deb Fischer, D-Neb., said. "The bipartisan legislation we are introducing today would expand fuel options for consumers and remove regulatory burdens that limit the use of E15. It would also ensure a fair playing field for higher ethanol blends, expanding fuel choices and strengthening our energy diversity."

Growth Energy CEO Emily Skor lauded the bill's introduction. "The introduction of the Consumer and Fuel Retailer Choice Act is the first step toward eradicating an unnecessary EPA restriction that limits consumer choice at the pump during the peak time of the year when Americans are on the road," she said.

The legislation was introduced by Sens. Fischer, Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and in the House by Reps. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., and Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa.

The issue has surfaced this week of discussions at the White House among several parties on the issue of the point of obligation for the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) being pushed by White House adviser Carl Icahn. The White House has denied that an executive order was being readied to shift the obligation away from refiners and move it to blenders of ethanol into the gasoline supply.

Washington Insider: Food Protection from Terrorism

Congress is developing a modestly new anti-terrorist effort, Food Safety News reports this week. The Securing our Agriculture and Food Act was introduced by Senate Agriculture Committee leaders including Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, and Ranking Member Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. The House version of the legislation was offered by Reps. David Young, R-Iowa, Donald Payne, Jr. D-N.J., and Dan Donovan, R-N.Y.

The sponsors note that the nation faces broad national security challenges and that Agro-terrorism and other high risk events pose serious threats to our food, agriculture and livestock. "It's imperative we have preparedness policies in place to quickly respond to events threatening U.S. agriculture or food production systems — ultimately protecting key industries which impact Americans on a daily basis."

Agro-terrorism concerns are not new, and have been the focus of previous legislation, but they could receive new attention with the introduction in Congress of this proposed new Act. The text of the bill is not yet available, FSN says, but is expected to include high-risk events involving food, agriculture and livestock. It was jointly introduced into the House and Senate earlier this week by a bipartisan group of lawmakers including some agricultural leaders.

Agro-terrorism risks have been the focus of earlier legislation—for example, such threats are the reason food production facilities have had to register since 2002 and for the food defense rule in the Food Safety Modernization Act. Still, FSN notes that although there have been no reported cases of agro-terrorism since 9/11, the FBI does identify the potential threats that have not gone away. These focus on specific groups like al Qaeda and ISIL; economic opportunists who might want to manipulate markets for personal gain; domestic groups including disgruntled employees; or militant animal rights groups or other domestic groups.

The new bill's authors say they want to authorize the Secretary of Agriculture to collaborate with other agencies "to ensure food, agriculture and animal and human health sectors receive attention and are integrated into the Department of Homeland Security domestic preparedness policy initiatives."

For his part, Roberts called attention to the National Bio and Agro Defense Facility being constructed in Manhattan, Kan., to replace the former USDA bio-research facility at Plum Island, NY, that was the site USDA animal disease research for many years. Roberts thinks "now is the exact time" to shore up USDA's coordination and mitigation capacity "should the worst occur and the nation is hit by a biological attack on our food and agriculture." He said the spread of "any deadly pathogen among our livestock and plant population would cause irreparable damage."

The potential vulnerability of the US food and agriculture industry is emphasized by the fact that pathogens in the food supply already sicken 48 million people annually, sending 128,000 to hospitals and causing illnesses that result in 3,000 deaths annually, according to estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, FSN points out.

FSN extends the annual CDC estimates over the years since 9/11 and argues that foodborne "illnesses can be accurately blamed for about 48,000 deaths and more than 2 million hospitalizations."

Well, nobody is in favor of allowing the food industry to be left vulnerable to terrorist attacks but such industry protection efforts do require actions, sometimes costly ones, by industries being protected. It is not clear exactly what this bill is intended to do, but unless it can be focused specifically on what is perceived as real and significant threats—especially if it requires costly protections—it likely will be regarded with skepticism by a food industry that is already quite sensitive to government regulations. So, the new rules need to be defined carefully and watched closely by producers as they are specified and implemented, 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