Washington Insider-- Thursday

USDA Winding Food Box Program

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

Canada Firmly Opposes Any US Attempt To Resurrect COOL

Kristen Hillman, Canada's ambassador to the U.S., said Tuesday the country would strongly oppose any new proposals from the U.S. to resurrect mandatory country-of-origin labeling (COOL) for beef and pork.

"We went through this in 2013, 2014 and 2015 and we are very firmly of the view that mandatory country of origin labeling is inappropriate," Hillman said during a Washington Ag Roundtable webinar. "That's an issue that has been fully litigated and I wouldn't want to see us go back to that."

Both Canada and Mexico challenge the last U.S. COOL attempt and won a battle at the World Trade Organization. The U.S. appealed and lost before repealing it under threat of $1.4 billion in retaliatory tariffs on a list of U.S. products.

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association, long an opponent of mandatory COOL, raised the issue last week with U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai.

USDA Reopens Comment Period On Origins Of Livestock Rule For Dairy Under Organic Regs

USDA is reopening the comment period for 60 days on a rule published April 28, 2015, relative to the origin of livestock regarding dairy cattle under USDA's organic regulations.

The Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) is reopening the comment period "to give all interested parties an opportunity to comment on whether AMS should prohibit the movement of transitioned cows in organic dairy production as part of the final rule." Comments are due July 12, according to the notice in the May 12 Federal Register.

USDA initially reopened the comment period on the proposed rule October 1, 2019, receiving around 750 comments at that point. The reopening of the comment period now is to get views on two additional issues on the movement of transitioned animals and the updated economic analysis of the proposed rule.

Washington Insider: USDA Winding Food Box Program

USDA this month is winding down a program launched by the Trump administration in an effort to help farmers that saw markets disappear for their products during the pandemic, CNN is reporting.

They launched the Farmers to Families Food Box Program at the height of the pandemic and it delivered nearly 167 million boxes of fresh food to families in need and helped farmers sell their produce at a time when supply chain disruptions forced them to dump milk and destroy their crops.

The Biden administration initially had not signaled which way it would go on the program, with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack suddenly signaling the agency would end the effort.

But the end of the program is one that will also be a challenge as CNN pointed out it needs to be wound down "in a way that doesn't create more problems for those still in need."

Surprisingly, the Food Box program was ended even though it had a lot of support on the Hill, including several Democrats. During Vilsack's confirmation hearing, Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt., spoke glowingly about the program and how it provided help to families in need and provided them access to nutritious and fresh foods.

Another Democrat, Sen. Corey Booker, D-N.J., the chairman of the Senate nutrition subcommittee, is calling on the government to keep a version of the food box program permanent as a way to make sure that needy families are able to get access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

The Food Box program was not without its issues. USDA bypassed normal food aid channels in a bid to try and get the aid out quicker and in a more-regional way. Their choice of a firm in Texas to handle a portion of the program that had no experience in food delivery raised more than a few complaints, but their participation in the program was short-lived.

The Trump administration injected funds into the program when they were nearly exhausted and warded off ending the program. When food deliveries began to dry up at one point, several stories appeared about recipients and those delivering the food were anxious for it to continue.

CNN reported that the Capital Area Food Bank based in Washington, DC, helped deliver more than 1 million of the food boxes to families, making up nearly one-third of the meals it provided during the pandemic. They are among those hoping it will continue.

"For our clients, the recovery is a long and slow one," said Radha Muthiah, Capital Area Food Bank's president and CEO. "The most important thing is to provide good, nutritious food for them and we certainly still need USDA as a partner."

But politics also came to play in the program. CNN pointed out that in the run-up to the election, former President Donald Trump required that the boxes include a letter from him touting the benefit.

While critics argued that it should have deployed the $5 billion spent in the program via the usual nutrition programs, the effort focused on fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy and meat and put it all into one box.

In a statement, the USDA said the Food Box program was meant to be a temporary effort. "It served that purpose, although with serious challenges, and now we must make sure people are getting access to food through other, more reliable channels," USDA said.

But even in ending the program, Vilsack hinted that it may not be totally dead. Rather, he suggested that USDA would possibly take the "best of" the Food Box effort and incorporate it into existing program.

So we will see. The expectation of many had been that the program would see at the very least a new name and some structural changes. But few expected to see it jettisoned as a whole, especially with bipartisan support for an effort launched as an emergency action that became very popular. The Food Box program may be gone by name, but expectations are that remnants will still be present. It is a situation which bears watching, especially one that creates a closer link between farmers and consumers, 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