Washington Insider -- Friday

Lettuce E coli Cases Become More Severe

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

US Ag Imports Continue Strong

The value of U.S. agricultural exports surged to $12.86 billion in March, up nearly 14% from the $11.31 billion mark in February. Exports of U.S. soybeans helped to push value higher.

Agricultural imports, however, also rose to $11.69 billion, up nearly 12% from the $10.46 billion level in February. The result was a trade surplus of $1.17 billion after the trade black ink had been below $1 billion the prior two months.

U.S. agricultural exports stand at a cumulative $74.84 billion for the first six months of Fiscal Year (FY) 2018, down less than 4% from level seen at this point in FY 2017. US agricultural imports, however, are continuing to climb, totaling $63.93 billion so far this fiscal year, up nearly 8% from the year-ago level of $59.2 billion.

That translates to a cumulative trade surplus of $10.91 billion, down more than 40% from the trade surplus at this stage in FY 2017.

Not only did U.S. ag imports hit their highest mark of FY 2018 in March, they also registered a new monthly record based on USDA data back to FY 1976. They have been at $10.1 billion or more every month so far in FY 2018, also a record run. U.S. ag imports only topped $10 billion four months during FY 2017 and were only able to string together three months in a row over the March-May period atop that plateau.

CBO Sees Long Implementation for Some SNAP Provisions in House Farm Bill

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released their analysis of the farm bill version passed by the House Ag Committee, laying out the spending changes they expect over the 10-year budget period.

With most producers expected to choose the Price Loss Coverage (PLC) program, CBO expects spending would rise $400 million over 2019-2028 while Ag Risk Coverage (ARC) payments would fall $300 million.

On conservation programs, CBO said the overall spending would fall $800 million over the 2019-2028 period, reflecting an increase of $7.7 billion for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), $3.5 billion more for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program and Regional Conservation Partnership Program, while the repeal of the Conservation Stewardship Program would reduce spending by $12.6 billion over 2019-2028.

But the most controversial part of the bill – changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) would take a while to implement. The job training portion would "not be able to offer training to all eligible recipients when the requirement takes effect in 2021, or even by the end of 2028."

Washington Insider: Lettuce E coli Cases Become More Severe

The ongoing E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce has turned deadly, with one person dying in California, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Wednesday. The outbreak is widely reported.

For example, the New York Times said that the current CDC report was ”the first reported death in the outbreak, which began in March and has spread to 25 states. The California Department of Public Health confirmed the death,” the Times said.

By now, the CDC. has recorded 121 cases nationwide, including 52 that resulted in hospitalization. Twenty-four cases have been reported in California. Pennsylvania has reported 20 cases and Idaho 11; no other state has reported more than eight.

The total on Wednesday was up 23 cases from the last update on April 27, and Kentucky, Massachusetts and Utah reported their first cases. The newest update includes illnesses that began as recently as April 21.

It can take two to three weeks for E. coli infections to be reported to the CDC, so the actual case count may be higher, the Times said.

The illnesses appear to stem from romaine lettuce grown in the Yuma, Ariz., region, and the CDC is warning restaurants and consumers to avoid romaine unless they can confirm that it was grown in a different region. Some of the infections have been linked to whole-head lettuce from a specific grower, Harrison Farms. The remainder are linked to chopped, bagged lettuce whose supplier, or suppliers, officials have not conclusively identified.

Most strains of E. coli are harmless but certain strains can cause illness, and the strain involved in the current outbreak is particularly virulent. The main symptoms are stomach cramps, vomiting and diarrhea, often bloody. In rare cases, patients can develop a form of kidney failure known as hemolytic uremic syndrome.

The current outbreak is the largest in the United States since 2006, when 199 people became ill and three died from E. coli infections traced to spinach.

Based on new information, the CDC is expanding its warning to consumers to cover all types of romaine lettuce from the Yuma, Ariz., growing region. However, the CDC apparently still has not identified the exact source of the outbreak.

For example, Food Safety News (FSN) criticized FDA and noted that it needs more industry information to manage recalls. “Shipping and receiving records don’t tell the whole traceability story. There are not enough dots to connect," it says, and argues “without more dots, we are not likely to see a romaine recall. We did not see a recall in the first romaine outbreak. By the time, CDC and FDA work from the ill person through each link in the supply chain back to the source, all the contaminated lettuce will likely be consumed.”

FSN notes that not so long ago, USDA operated a microbiological data program (MDP) to test fresh produce during the various harvest seasons. The MDP existed for a decade, and “became responsible for 80% of the fresh produce testing in the U.S.,” FSN says. Now, the FDA also tests fresh produce. but FSN doubts that coverage is anywhere close to making up for MDP’s demise. “When leafy green outbreaks occur now, our federal experts go into the field thin on data,” FSN said.

Both the CDC and consumer advocates agree that if you don’t know for sure what’s in your salad, don’t eat it. However, Consumer Reports thinks the CDC’s advice is “impractical” and is now urging consumers to avoid all romaine lettuce, whether it is bagged or not.

“Are you really supposed to say to the waiter who serves you Caesar salad, ‘Can you tell me where the romaine lettuce was obtained?’” said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. “It’s completely unreasonable and unrealistic to think consumers may be able to sort out whether the romaine they eat at a restaurant or buy at a store comes from Yuma, Ariz., or someplace else. The prudent thing to do at this point is to avoid all romaine.”

Lettuce has a short shelf life and a lot of retailers have taken bagged romaine off shelves. “Hopefully with it being in one particular growing region and that region moving to California, it won’t be too much longer,” said Laura Gieraltowski, who leads the CDC’s food-borne outbreak response team. That said, she urged consumers to wait for the all-clear from the CDC before eating chopped romaine.

Well, the problem with food safety oversight is that testing is costly and interferes some with harvest and delivery timing — as the commercial meat industry discovered nearly a hundred years ago. Now those inspections have been modernized, and are both more efficient and effective. FDA coverage of the vast bulk of the food industry is far less intense and heavily dependent on commercial firms’ instincts to protect their brands.

So, not only is this outbreak likely to be very costly to producers, it may reduce overall consumer confidence in the U.S. food chain, and lead to tighter regulations on producers and processors in the future. Certainly, consumers are becoming aware of the risk, and pressure for changes in safety programs is growing rapidly — a process producers should watch closely as it emerges, 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.

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