The House of Representatives Wednesday easily approved legislation aimed at stopping ocean carrier companies from refusing to load U.S. agricultural and other goods for exports to Asia and around the globe.

The House, with support from hundreds of farm groups and ag businesses, passed the Ocean Shipping Reform Act of 2021 with a vote of 364 to 60.

U.S. exporters of dairy products, pork, beef, wine, almonds, rice, poultry, apples and other commodities have been struggling for months as Chinese exporters pay vessel-operating common carriers, or VOCCs for short, to return containers empty instead of loading them up at U.S. ports with American goods. U.S. demand is so strong for imported consumer electronics, apparel, toys and other Chinese-made goods that exporters of those products do not want to wait for containers that would be used to ship U.S. commodities throughout Asia before returning to China.

The Ocean Shipping Reform Act – authored by Reps. John Garamendi, D-Calif., and Dusty Johnson, R-S.D. and co-sponsored by 90 other Democratic and Republican lawmakers — would bar VOCCs “from unreasonably declining export cargo bookings if the cargo can be loaded in a safe and timely manner.” It would also reform demurrage and detention rules that lawmakers say allow unfair charges for containers that are stuck in ports because of severe congestion. Those charges can accrue and become higher than the value of the container at no fault of the exporter.

“After defying the odds of weather, and many other issues that our farmers face, it is unconscionable that our perishable exports are left sitting in warehouses to rot,” said Rep. Rick Allen, R-Ga., before the vote. “This bill provides the first significant federal update of the Federal Maritime Commission’s powers since 1998 and will significantly improve our farmers’ access to affordable shipping.”

The U.S. dairy industry, which is highly dependent on the ability to export milk, whey, cheese, lactose and other products, is a major supporter of the bill.

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The U.S. Dairy Export Council and National Milk Producers Federation issued a statement saying they have long been working with Garamendi and Johnson on the bill, which would “help alleviate delays and disruptions at U.S. ports that have cost the U.S. dairy industry well over $1 billion this year. American dairy exporters since late 2020 have faced unprecedented challenges in securing shipping container accommodations on ocean vessels while contending with record-high fees and shipping access volatility, most of which has been driven by foreign-owned ocean carriers.”

Johnson said he’s eager for the Senate to take action and the strong vote in the House Wednesday sends a strong message.

“We’ve been talking to (Senate leadership) for … months and we’re looking forward to seeing their language introduced,” Johnson said.

Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., are expected to soon introduce a bill similar to the Ocean Shipping Reform Act, sources tell Agri-Pulse.

“Certainly, the language is not identical, but the guts of the (Senate) bill are very similar,” Johnson said.

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