Washington Insider -- Monday

USDA's Heart Meat Kerfuffle

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

Trump Wants to Speed NAFTA talks, Call Revised Pact NAFFTA

President Donald Trump said he would like to speed up North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) renegotiations if possible, but was adhering to statutory limits.

"All of the statutory guidelines we're adhering to I would like to speed it up if possible," Trump said after a Feb. 2 meeting with top lawmakers responsible for overseeing trade policy.

No notice period is required under NAFTA to amend the deal, but the agreement does require a six-month notice if a country desires to withdraw from the pact. Under trade promotion authority procedures, the president can start trade talks 90 days after formally notifying Congress. Trade promotion authority procedures guarantee a straight up or down vote by Congress on any deal reached with no amendments.

Mexico has announced that it was kicking off a 90-day consultation period to develop objectives for the negotiations.

Trump praised Wilbur Ross, his selection to head the Commerce Department, saying Ross would be "representing us in negotiations" with "a lot of other great people."

Trump asked for input on what in NAFTA is or is not working for America as well as which areas should be the focus of modernization. Trump said he did not care if "it's a renovation of NAFTA or a brand-new NAFTA, but we do have to make it fair, and it's very unfair to the American worker and very, very unfair to companies that do business in this country." That is why Trump said an updated NAFTA should be called the North American Free and Fair Trade Agreement, or NAFFTA.

Speculation on whether the NAFTA rewrite would be submitted to Congress for a vote was "way premature," said House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas.

***

Congress Uses CRA to Kill Obama-era Regulation

Republicans used the Congressional Review Act (CRA) to kill a rule aimed at protecting streams from the effects of coal mining. The House voted 228-194 for the measure. The Senate voted 54-45. President Donald Trump is now poised to be the first president in 16 years to sign a regulatory repeal resolution.

Trump has characterized the so-called Stream Protection Rule as "excessive," while Republican lawmakers echo mining industry warnings that the edict could strand billions of dollars of coal in the ground. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., from coal-producing Kentucky, has made terminating the rule one of his top priorities, calling it a "parting salvo in the Obama administration's War on Coal."

Repeal of two other energy-related regulations is ahead: a rule limiting methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, and an SEC rule requiring oil, gas and mining companies to disclose payments to foreign governments.


Washington Insider: USDA's Heart Meat Kerfuffle

About the last thing you would expect USDA to quietly change during the transition would be the make-up of hamburger—but, you would be wrong. Food Safety News is reporting this week that while USDA long operated under "Policy Memo 027" that said beef hearts and tongues should be kept out of ground beef "because consumers would not expect to find them included," no longer applies.

In fact, USDA is sort of denying that a change occurred. Aaron Lavallee, deputy assistant administrator in the Food Safety and Inspection Service's (FSIS) Office of Public Affairs and Consumer Education, told Food Safety News "there's nothing new about beef hearts being permitted by the regulations in ground beef."

That is, "there is no change to FSIS regulations," Lavallee says. "Ground beef that consumers purchase every day is made up of various cuts of meat, as allowed under federal regulations. The addition of heart and tongue meat to ground beef does not make it any less safe or wholesome to consume."

At the same time, FNS implies that this view involves somewhat sharp lawyering. The FSIS website-- last updated on Aug. 16, 2016-- says beef heart meat is permitted in ground beef, but also ends with this statement:

"Note: Policy memo 027, 1982 and a subsequent entry in the Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book under the heading GROUND BEEF state that heart meat is not an acceptable ingredient in chopped beef, ground beef, or hamburger. These guidance materials are not consistent with FSIS regulations and will be revised or rescinded as necessary."

Guidance is not legally enforceable like regulations, FSN says, but in this case "appears to have had the same impact for a long time."

The change comes as USDA remains in transition, awaiting US Senate confirmation of the secretary of agriculture designate and as many as 250 other political appointees to take over the agency. "FSIS may be betting most consumers now will regard beef hearts as "delicacies, and not with doubts. Many chefs do," FSN says.

Still, the policy turnaround has caught the beef industry by surprise, especially the suggestion that no label regarding the inclusion of beef hearts is required. That has set off an industry discussion about transparency, FSN says.

Food safety is not a factor but consumer reactions may well be, FSN says, and the incident will be a test of transparency for the industry. "Consumers are not going to like being surprised even if they are told it involves something trendy," FSN opines. It points out that the source of the meats is different; hearts are organs and made of cardiac muscle, not skeletal muscle.

FSN wraps up its article with a weak pun regarding whether burgers shaped for their heart content that might one day "muscle out flowers and chocolates for Valentine's Day," remains to be seen. This will inevitably lead to suggestions that FNS should not give up its day job.

It will be interesting to see how this move by a USDA agency that takes itself and its job very, very seriously turns out. Certainly, the Office of Management and Budget, the White House and Congress take FSIS's job very, very seriously, as well, as do the nation's meat consumers. So, the question of how this "standards change" by USDA happened, and what it might mean for future rules regarding product standards and labels, as well.

Certainly, lots of rules and regulations are under pressure just now and many will be changed. What this also might mean for other food products also will be important, and should be watched closely by both producers and consumers as the debate proceeds, Washington Insider believes.


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