Washington Week Ahead: COOL, other issues await action; industry pushes for GMO bill

By Philip Brasher

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Dec. 6, 2015 - The week ahead is shaping up to be the most important period for agriculture and food policy since at least the passage of the 2014 farm bill, with critical action coming on country-of-origin labeling, school nutrition standards, tax policy and a range of other issues.

Congressional leaders are negotiating the final version of a fiscal 2016 spending bill that could serve as the legislative vehicle for addressing a number of top concerns to food and agriculture interests, including the COOL law for meat, reauthorization of school nutrition programs, and the Obama administration's “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) rule.

A coalition of industry groups hasn't giving up hope that the Congress also will use the spending bill to block states from requiring labeling of biotech foods. Meanwhile, the Obama administration is expected this week to release the 2015 dietary guidelines.

Congressional leaders want to pass the omnibus spending bill by Friday, when a stopgap funding bill expires, but a very brief continuing resolution may be needed if the negotiations delay final action into the following week.

The fate of the COOL law will come into focus Monday when the World Trade Organization is expected to decide on the amount of tariffs that Canada and Mexico can impose on U.S. goods in retaliation for the labeling regulations.

The House voted overwhelmingly earlier this year to repeal the law, but a bipartisan group of senators, led by the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, want to preserve a voluntary program that would prevent meat from being called a U.S. product unless the animal is born, raised and processed in the United States.

A resolution to the issue could be attached to the omnibus, but there also has been discussion of inserting it into trade enforcement legislation that congressional leaders also hope to pass before Congress adjourns for the year.

Lets Talk Food

Senate GOP Conference Chairman John Thune said he expected the Senate to have to go along with the full COOL repeal the House approved. But the National Farmers Union wasn't ready last week to give up on preserving the voluntary COOL with the existing definition of a U.S. product.

“NFU will raise hell if any repeal bill or language gets included that falls short of maintaining the integrity of COOL,” said NFU President Roger Johnson.

It appears far less likely that Congress will address GMO labeling before next year. Stabenow said that the biotech issue was dead until next year because she has been unable to get agreement on a mandatory system for electronic disclosure of biotech ingredients.

But the industry-backed Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food sent a letter to congressional leaders on Friday saying it was “imperative” that lawmakers act now to head off state labeling laws. A Vermont labeling requirement takes effect in July, and it will be tougher than ever in a presidential election year to pass controversial legislation in Washington.

“Today interest groups across the country are pushing state-level labeling mandates that will exacerbate consumer confusion and drive up food prices,” the coalition letter says. “Instead of informing consumers, these state initiatives are filled with loopholes, exempting as much as two-thirds of foods.”

House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, told Agri-Pulse the political pressure on the issue will only increase after the first of the year because of the threat of state labeling rules, and Stabenow may be counting on that to get a deal. “We'll finally get people willing to sit down and negotiate an agreement,” she said.

Lawmakers have been much more optimistic about passing a reauthorization of child nutrition programs. The legislation will provide some permanence to the higher school meal standards that the administration implemented under authority of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

A compromise reauthorization measure is expected to expand summer feeding programs, but it will also extend relief to schools on whole grains and sodium, said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.

Big tax package could make Section 179 permanent, phase out wind credit

Senate and House tax writers have been in intense negotiations over a sweeping package that could make permanent the expanded Section 179 expensing allowance that is widely used in purchases of farm equipment. It's one of more than 50 tax benefits, including biofuel subsidies and the wind power tax credit that lapsed a year ago.

Democrats have been pushing to extend the child tax credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit as well, and there have been concerns that the tax package would get so large it couldn't be passed.

But House Speaker Paul Ryan has made it a priority to get some of the lapsed tax incentives permanent, including Section 179, and the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, Ron Wyden, said there was a “growing appetite” in Congress for “a substantial and balanced” tax package.

According to lawmakers, the package being negotiated also would phase out the wind power tax credit, and some want to overhaul the biodiesel tax credit so that it goes to domestic producers rather than refiners.

New dietary guidelines expected out soon

The Obama administration is expected to release the 2015 dietary guidelines as soon as this week, which would ensure that they couldn't be affected by any restrictions that congressional Republicans might want to put into the omnibus bill.

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Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack have already assured Congress that the guidelines won't take environmental factors into consideration - only nutrition.

The advice in the guidelines, which are widely used by health professionals and also from the basis for federal nutrition standards, is not expected to change significantly from the 2010 version, said Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a research and advocacy group.

Here's a list of agriculture- or rural-related events scheduled for this week in Washington and elsewhere:

Monday, Dec. 7

WTO due to release decision on retaliation in the country-of-origin labeling case.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy speaks at side event at the Paris climate negotiations.

Deputy Agriculture Secretary Krysta Harden speaks to the Tennessee Farm Bureau in Franklin, Tenn.

USDA's Plant Variety Protection Board meeting through Tuesday, Chicago.

All day - FDA's Food Advisory Committee meeting on agency's listeria policy, FDA White Oak Campus, Md.

5:45 p.m. - Conference committee meeting on the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act, S-211, Capitol.

Tuesday, Dec. 8

U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman attends meetings on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, through Friday, in London and Brussels.

EPA's McCarthy speaks at Paris side event.

8 a.m. - FDA Food Advisory Committee meeting, second day.

10 a.m. - House Science, Space and Technology hearing on “The Future of Biotechnology: Solutions for Energy, Agriculture and Manufacturing,” 2318 Rayburn.

3 p.m. - Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on the AB InBev/SABMiller merger, 226 Dirksen.

Wednesday, Dec. 9

9 a.m. - USTR's chief negotiator for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Barbara Weisel, speaks at forum sponsored by the Washington International Trade Association, Ronald Reagan Building, 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW.

10 a.m. - House Agriculture subcommittee hearing on “Stress in Cotton Country,” 1300 Longworth.

10 a.m. - House Natural Resources Committee hearing on the Interior Department's role in EPA's Animas River spill, 1324 Longworth.

Noon - USDA releases World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates and the monthly Crop Production report.

2 p.m. - House Agriculture subcommittee hearing on USDA's use of agricultural census data to acquire farmers' personal financial information, 1300 Longworth.

Thursday, Dec. 10

8:30 a.m. - USDA releases Weekly Export Sales report.

10 a.m. - House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee hearing on weather satellite programs, 2318 Rayburn.

Friday, Dec. 11

#30

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