Committee Approves Ag Bill Bundle

Senate Ag Committee Passes Updated Grain Inspection Law

Legislation passed by the Senate Agriculture Committee Thursday ensures grain inspections at export facilities will continue in the event of a disruption. (DTN file photo by Marcia Zarley Taylor)

OMAHA (DTN) -- The Senate Agriculture Committee passed a package of bills on Thursday that reauthorizes and updates laws on grain inspections, mandatory livestock price reporting and the National Forest Foundation.

Several agriculture groups commended the passage, noting that it ensures grain inspections at export facilities will continue in the event of a disruption, like what happened last year at a grain terminal in the Pacific Northwest.

"Congress mandates that USDA has an unequivocal obligation to ensure that official grain inspection and weighing services at export elevators are provided in an uninterrupted, reliable and consistent basis," Randy Gordon, president of the National Grain and Feed Association, said in a press release. "The legislation approved today by the Senate Agriculture Committee takes important steps to reinforce this mandate and hold USDA accountable."

Last year, the Washington state agency responsible for conducting grain inspection pulled its team from a Port Vancouver facility citing safety concerns related to an ongoing labor lock-out. USDA didn't send in federal inspectors, causing export shipments to grind to a halt.

The package of bills, called the Agriculture Reauthorization Act, reauthorizes the U.S. Grain Standards Act, the Livestock Mandatory Reporting Act and the National Forest Foundation Act through 2020. The first two provisions are set to expire on Sept. 30.

The House and Senate committees have been working together to pass bipartisan reauthorization bills. The House had already passed a version, but later agreed to some changes while working with the Senate. They will need to vote again on the compromise measure, and grain groups believe it will be passed in the next few weeks.

Senate Ag Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R.-Kan., said the bill improves the transparency and predictability of the grain inspections system while enhancing U.S. agriculture's global reputation and giving more oversight.

"Specifically, we require the secretary of agriculture to take immediate action and to notify Congress if there is ever another disruption in inspection like we saw in the Port of Vancouver last summer and to keep us up to date on what is being done to resolve the disruption until inspections resume," Roberts said in a statement.

"Further, we require the secretary to waive inspection requirements if certain conditions are met and report to Congress on the changes made to ensure that situation does not happen again. The Department of Agriculture has a statutory obligation to inspect grain exports, and we won't let this responsibility lapse again."

The bill includes several other components sought by the NGFA and the North American Export Grain Association (NAEGA), including a more consistent rulemaking process, a new fee structure and a shorter timeframe for reauthorization.

It does not include allowing third-party inspectors to complete official inspections. A recent NAEGA study showed that up to 25% of bulk grain, oilseed and coproduct shipments are re-inspected by independent third parties on the request of foreign buyers.

"Utilizing these talented professionals would further strengthen the U.S. official grain inspection system -- a point we'll continue making as we seek to improve the long-term viability and professionalism of the U.S. grain inspection service," NGFA and NAEGA stated.

Livestock groups also got most of what they wanted from the bill, which reauthorizes mandatory pricing laws, authorizes a study of the program's workability, and makes a technical change to swine and lamb reporting that will result in more transactions being captured. Roberts thinks that will lead to more accurate reports.

"This information is critical for farmers and ranchers who raise livestock and entities in the meat trade, because it provides them a landscape of the marketplace for livestock and meat and provides information for them to make informed business decisions," he said.

That National Pork Producers Council urges the Senate to take up the measure quickly.

"It is imperative that the Senate reauthorize before it expires the mandatory price reporting law, which provides pork producers and meat packers transparent, accurate and timely national market information to make knowledge-based business decisions about selling and buying hogs," said NPPC President Ron Prestage, a veterinarian and pork producer from Camden, South Carolina.

Katie Micik can be reached at katie.micik@dtn.com

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(CC/AG)