Washington Insider- Thursday

Consumers and Food Concerns

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

Senate Ag Committee Hearing Focuses on GMO Labeling

The Senate Ag Committee held an Oct. 21 hearing on a measure for federal oversight of biotech foods. The panel heard from USDA, FDA and other officials.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-S.D., for months has stated he will introduce legislation similar to the House-passed measure that would preempt state labeling laws and require USDA to set up a GMO-free labeling certification. Hoeven said he plans to introduce his bill sometime after the hearing and would like a Democrat signed on when he does.

The House in July passed a measure that would block any mandatory GMO labeling by states and instead set a national voluntary standard. The House bill potentially nullified a measure scheduled to take effect next year in Vermont, which would be the first such mandatory state labeling law. The food manufacturing industry is worried new laws will create consumer confusion and boost costs.

The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, HR 1599, passed the House by a vote of 275-150 on July 23. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., said he has been unable to find a Democrat to cosponsor a Senate version of the bill. The bill would require the vote of at least a half-dozen Democratic senators to pass.

Pompeo and Senate Ag Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., argue that disparities between states are problematic and should be ironed out by the federal government. Pompeo and Roberts argue that labeling discrepancies among states place a financial burden on manufacturers, which they then pass on to consumers in the form of higher food prices.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., Senate Agriculture ranking member, said the Senate should pass a bipartisan bill on labeling genetically modified foods by year’s end. But neither Stabenow nor Roberts indicated if they have a bill ready.

The FDA plans to finalize guidance for voluntary labeling of foods with and without genetically modified ingredients by the end of the year, the director of the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition told the panel.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said the federal government is losing the communications battle that biotech plants are safe. Heitkamp aired shared bipartisan frustration among Senate Agriculture members that consumers are wary of GMO products. “We’re up against a huge social media (network) where things get said that are not challenged,” she said.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., noted that the law USDA uses to determine if biotech crops pose risk does not specifically refer to genetically modified crops. A USDA hearing witness agreed but said the law allows broad review discretion authority.


US ITC: Imports of Mexican Sugar Injure US Growers

Imports of Mexican sugar into the U.S. injure or threaten to injure U.S. sugar cane and beet growers, according to an Oct. 20 decision by the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC).

The decision was unanimous in the affirmative, the ITC said in a decision that determined the U.S. industry "is materially injured by reason of imports of sugar from Mexico that the U.S. Department of Commerce has determined are subsidized and sold in the United States at less than fair value."

Given the ITC decision, the agency said: "Suspension agreements that Commerce previously entered concerning sugar from Mexico will remain in effect."

Further, the ITC public report will contain the views of the Commissioners and information developed during the investigations. The report will be available by November 23, 2015.

As for reactions to the ITC determination, Mexico indicated it was not surprised. "The decision does not affect the validity and terms of the suspension agreements. We don't agree with this decision, but it's not a surprise," a senior Mexican government official said. "Today's ruling helps accomplish that goal by upholding the governments' agreement and addressing the unfair trade practices that were injuring American farmers, workers, and taxpayers."

The American Sugar Alliance, which petitioned the government in the case, indicated that the decision found "unfair trade practices ... were injuring American farmers, workers, and taxpayers," ASA spokesman Phillip Hayes said.

The Sweetener Users Association criticized the ITC decision, lamenting that they had "missed a key opportunity" and vowed to continue their efforts to reform the U.S. sugar program.


Washington Insider: Consumers and Food Concerns

The long-standing public fight over whether or how to regulate food production and labels is intensifying in the Congress these days, with new hearings and discussions underway in several quarters. In the meantime, the influential Chicago Council on Global Affairs is suggesting that the topic of food may be depicted "just a little bit out of focus these days." That would seem to be an understatement.

However, the council is referring to new survey of public attitudes on food and the risks and benefits of scientific techniques used in food production.

"If you follow the dialogue on food in the United States, it can be difficult to decide what is and what is not important to Americans," the council concludes in a new report. "Entire marketing campaigns angle to promote how a food was produced: sustainability, without GMO ingredients, locally grown, from a family farm, without antibiotics," it said.

However, the council finds that Americans' most intense concerns lie in different directions, primarily including affordability and nutrition, after food safety, of course.

GfK Custom Research collected opinions from 1,000 adults ages 18 and older from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The project was funded from the council's own operating revenue and accepted no funding specifically for the survey. The group noted that it has produced public policy survey research for the past 40 years.

The new report found that the most basic food concern was safety, as expected, followed by the affordability and nutritional value of the foods followed. Then, the survey analysts were surprised by what they didn't find. "Fewer than three out of 10 know or care much about topics such as GMOs or antibiotics," the Council said.

Women making more than $50,000 a year and are older than 35 were among those who responded that they cared most about the nutritional value of food. And, surprisingly, survey respondents complained that food producers now lack a focus on food safety and nutrition," the council said.

"These gaps between the perceptions and expectations may well underlie much of today's popular food movement, which rejected traditional food systems and producers, and the rise of marketing campaigns focused on organic, non-GMO, and local foods," the report stated. Dissatisfaction over food safety and nutrition was reported to be much more widespread than on issues such as transparency and sustainability.

The Chicago Council survey suggests that interest in food has never been greater as evidenced by having its own media and by treating chefs as celebrities. It found that 78% of Americans said they care a great deal about how their food is produced, and that health professionals and friends and family are seen as the most trustworthy sources of information about food.

The council's survey results likely will be seen as somewhat surprising, especially the low marks given the current food supply in terms of key attributes including safety, but also affordability. For example, even in the recent debates over mandatory labels in California and Washington state, opponents of GMOs did not typically charge that labels were needed to point out health hazards. They primarily argued that they had the right to "know."

So, the council is suggesting that everybody is interested in food safety, of course, but the food industry's marketing is pushing other characteristics such as organic, non-GMO, and local products that really are of little interest to consumers. That may be, and the findings of low recognition level for social concerns like those regarding GMOs are surprising.

Still, all surveys require interpretation. The council's effort is quite complex and likely will require considerable interpretation regarding its implications. It also seems true that the modern food debates revolve around advocates and supporters with quite firm opinions, so it is likely that few minds will be changed by the survey results, 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