GOP lawmakers press USDA on nutrition standards
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(By Spencer Chase and Sarah Gonzalez)
WASHINGTON, March 17, 2015 - As the budget battle heats up on Capitol Hill, GOP lawmakers used House and Senate appropriations hearings today to examine the Obama administration's nutrition policies and funding priorities.
At a House Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee hearing, the talking points read like a list of greatest hits of controversial nutrition issues: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); school nutrition standards, and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans all took their turns under the microscope.
The hearing was called to examine USDA's $112.4 billion budget request for fiscal 2016, a $2.1 billion jump from enacted FY 2015 levels.
In his opening statement, subcommittee Chairman Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., criticized President Obama's proposed budget and its cuts to crop insurance. He mentioned that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said crop insurance cuts were being used to realize savings in the farm bill, but Aderholt said nutrition programs should also do their part.
“(I)n case the administration missed it, farm bill nutrition savings are not materializing as projected either, so where in this budget is a proposal to ensure the nutrition savings stay on track?” Aderholt asked. He said this and other budgetary examples “demonstrate a missed opportunity to show some evidence of fiscal restraint.”
Obama's budget asks for $112.4 billion for fiscal year 2016, a $2.1 billion jump from enacted FY 2015 levels.
Much of the questioning at the House hearing were directed at Kevin Concannon, USDA's under secretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services. In his opening statement, Concannon announced a 30-day extension in the comment period on the scientific report from the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) now set for May 8. The report contains recommendations that Vilsack and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell will review before writing the next version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Concannon said this year's committee process was the most transparent in the program's history, and that may have led to some misconceptions about what the guidelines may eventually say about red meat and sustainability. He said this was an example of how the media sometimes “jumps on something” and “overplays it.”
“At the end of the day, the end of this calendar year, I am confident that the report that will be submitted by the two secretaries will reflect just the core science that is required for food-based recommendations of public health interest,” Concannon said, adding that the actual intake recommendations for lean meat hasn't changed in the latest DGAC report.
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Vilsack also testified on the issue, but at the Senate Agriculture Appropriations hearing. Subcommittee Chairman Jerry Moran, R-Kan., wanted reassurance that Vilsack would not support guidelines that go beyond the scope of diet and nutrition.
“At the end of day,” Vilsack said, “our decision-making process has to be focused on dietary nutrition.”
At the House hearing, Concannon was pressed hardest on nutrition issues by Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md. Harris, formerly a physician at Johns Hopkins Hospital and a medical officer in the Naval Reserve, pushed Concannon on the very legitimacy of the Dietary Guidelines, pointing out that he was trained in medical school to believe that each patient behaves differently, so blanket guidelines may actually be bad advice for some Americans.
Harris also raised concerns about parts of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, specifically the implementation of goals for whole grain-rich foods. He also said that as a physician, he wasn't aware of “good literature” backing up the argument that children benefit from sodium reduction.
Several GOP lawmakers in leadership roles have said they are interested in looking into USDA's nutrition programs. They include House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, who has promised a “soup to nuts” review of the programs.
At the Senate hearing, Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., questioned Vilsack about new rules that require 100 percent of all grains served in schools be whole-grain rich. Hoeven has introduced legislation, supported by the School Nutrition Association, which restores the requirement back to 50 percent of total grains. The bill would also prevent USDA from requiring further sodium reductions in school meals below the current Target 1 level, which became effective in July 2014.
Vilsack said USDA has been willing to provide flexibility to schools when needed, particularly on the whole grain mandate, but “we're concerned about taking a step back.” He also said USDA intends to extend the period of time before the next phase of sodium targets are required.
The secretary was also questioned about USDA's controversial initiative to “Modernize and Innovate the Delivery of Agricultural Systems,” which began in 2007. Sen. Roy Blount, R-Mo., said the original estimates for MIDAS projected a cost of $305 million and a completion date of March 2014. The cost has already surpassed $400 million and the project is on the Government Accountability Office's list of high-risk programs that may not be completed, Blount said.
Vilsack acknowledged USDA had not done “as good a job as we could” to implement the program, but he said the department is moving forward to the next stages.
According to USDA, MIDAS Farm Records was released in April 2013 and includes the consolidation of both land and producer information, and enables producers to conduct business with any USDA service center nationwide. Future releases include Business Partner, Acreage Reporting and Inventory Reporting; Historical Changes and Analytics; and Customer Self-Service Portal.
Vilsack was also asked by Sen. Moran whether USDA could do anything to “narrow the scope of trade disruption” caused by the outbreak of avian influenza in the Midwest. Vilsack said about a dozen countries have banned all poultry imports from the United States, and USDA is attempting to “encourage a more reasoned approach and [to get the countries to] look at it from more regional perspective.”
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