House Republican leaders continued to struggle Wednesday to get the party support they need to bring up the fiscal 2024 spending bill for USDA and FDA. In the meantime, farm groups have been bracing for amendments that attack key USDA programs. The produce industry has been working to reverse a cut to WIC benefits. 

At a meeting of the House Rules Committee Wednesday, two critics of checkoff programs appealed for a vote on a proposed amendment that would cut off USDA funding for operating checkoff programs.

GOP Reps. Victoria Spartz of Indiana and Tom Massie of Kentucky claimed the programs lack accountability and that the checkoff fees amount to an unfair tax on farmers. Massie also took aim at the $1 million annual salary that now-Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack earned as head of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, a checkoff-funded group. 

Major commodity groups argue that the programs are critical to building markets and have adequate USDA oversight.  

By the way: House Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry, R-Pa., filed a series of amendments attacking various aspects of the federal sugar program, which is regularly targeted during farm bill debates.

From the other side: Democrats took aim at the spending bill for slashing the benefit for fruit and vegetables in the WIC nutrition program. The benefit for an adult would be reduced from $44 to $13 a month. The International Fresh Produce Association is backing an amendment that would restore the higher benefit. 

By the way: The House is scheduled to vote today on Senate-approved resolution that would overturn the endangered species listing for the lesser prairie chicken. The vote is largely symbolic since President Biden will veto the measure, which faces heavy Democratic opposition in Congress. 

Poultry tournament system rule advances

Federal agencies have released their latest, semiannual regulatory agendas, In some cases, the agendas outline rough estimates of when regulations will be issued. The Labor Department’s Employment and Training Administration is developing a proposal to improve working conditions for farmworkers, but hasn’t published a timeline.

“The use of the H-2A program has grown substantially in recent years and the department is committed to protecting agricultural workers in light of their significant vulnerabilities,” the regulatory agenda says.

Take note: A rule revising parameters of the “tournament” system used by poultry integrators to pay growers is now under review at the Office of Management and Budget.

The measure, sent to OMB last Friday, is one of two USDA final rules and five proposals under review at OMB. The other final rule involves integrity of child nutrition programs, while the proposed rules address – among other issues – quality control in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; user fees in the Agricultural Quarantine and Inspection program, and the Rural Development voucher program.

House Ag farm bill sessions continue

Members of the House Ag Committee are hitting the road again, this time for a listening session in Maine in the home district of Democrat Chellie Pingree. 

House Ag Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa., will lead the meeting. Other members who will be attending include Indiana Republican Jim Baird, Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern and Illinois Democrat Jonathan Jackson.

Former FDA official says FDA doesn’t need more money

A former food safety official at FDA doesn’t think the agency needs more funding until it can prove it’s using its current budget appropriately. 

“I think the budget system within federal agencies, certainly FDA, lacks the transparency that the American public deserves,” Frank Yiannas told members of the International Dairy Foods Association on Wednesday. He says the current “$1.4 billion budget is a lot” and he believes FDA “could use that money more efficiently.” 

Yiannas encouraged those in the food industry to provide constructive criticism on ways FDA can continue to evolve to meet future needs, especially as it moves forward with the Human Foods Program changes. 

Yiannas says a lot of the conversation from FDA over the last year on FDA restructuring has “missed the appropriate balance” on vision, strategy and organizational structure. 

UN confirms Russia has hit more Ukrainian grain ports

Beyond Odesa, Russia has attacked two Ukrainian grain ports on the Danube River in recent days, UN Assistant Secretary-General Mohamed Khaled Khiari said Wednesday during a Security Council meeting.

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Russia’s attempt to cripple Ukrainian grain exports beyond the main Odesa ports now includes the bombing of the Ports of Reni and Izmail, two river ports where commodities are loaded onto barges and sent to the Romanian Port of Constanta on the Black Sea. Ukraine’s alternate export routes have become more important after Russia shut down Ukrainian exports from its main ports in Odesa.

“Deliberately targeting infrastructure that facilitates the export of food to the rest of the world could be life-threatening to millions of people who need access to affordable food,” Khiari aid.

Legislation would expand school meal aid for Native kids

House and Senate Democrats have introduced legislation to make Native American children categorically eligible for free school meals and create a USDA pilot program funding tribal administration of federal school lunch and breakfast programs.

The pilot program proposed in the Tribal Nutrition Improvement Act would award $10,000 to $100,000 in grants to 10 tribal entities to directly administer the National School Lunch Program, Summer Food Service Program or the Child and Adult Care Food Program. It would also adjust School Lunch and Breakfast program reimbursement rates for schools funded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs or located on reservations.

She said it. “It’s not head scratching, it’s gob smacking. It’s stupid.” – Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-Pa., complaining about the level of funding for the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program in the FY24 Agriculture appropriations bill.