In an exclusive interview with Agri-Pulse, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Glenn Thompson, says he’s found a way to fund changes in farm bill commodity programs, and he says he intends to move the legislation next month.

He said that “without a doubt, we will mark up a farm bill out of committee before Memorial Day.”

He declined to detail the funding mechanism he’s identified, but he said “it's going to allow us to do what we know needs to be done in terms of safety net issues.” He said no money would be shifted into the commodity program from the nutrition title or from Inflation Reduction Act conservation funding: “Anything that we do there will not be used for the safety net.”

Senate Republicans make their farm bill move 

Republicans on the Senate Ag Committee are upping the ante on crop insurance.

The FARMER Act led by Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., would raise premium subsidies on 85% crop insurance coverage from 53% to 63%. The proposal is intended to counter Senate Ag Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow’s proposal to offer all farmers a version of the high-subsidy STAX policy for cotton growers that doesn’t allow farmers to enroll the same acreage in farm bill commodity programs.

Backers of the proposal make clear they aren’t willing to trade higher premium subsidies for an increase in Price Loss Coverage reference prices. “We need to address reference prices. Absolutely,” Hoeven told reporters. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., said “all the tools that the farmers have in their toolbox” need to be “up to date.”

For more details on the GOP crop insurance plan and responses from critics, read our weekly Agri-Pulse newsletter. 

USDA challenges dairy industry’s WIC concerns

USDA is pushing back on concerns in the dairy industry about changes to foods eligible for the WIC nutrition assistance program. USDA finalized regulations Tuesday cutting the amount of milk and dairy products available through the program, but the department says it expects more dairy products will be purchased through WIC because of projected increases in participation. 

Industry groups representing fresh produce and frozen food say the updated benefits to fruit and vegetables will improve consumption and overall nutrition. The National WIC Association, which represents public health and nutrition assistance agencies, also is applauding the changes, citing recent survey results that found access to fruits and vegetables is the top reason participants join the program. 

Take note: USDA also says WIC participants have only been redeeming benefits for 2 to 4 gallons of milk each month, fewer than the 4 to 6 gallons allotted.

USDA looks for another way to disclose bioengineered ingredients 

USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service is seeking comments on the best way to inform consumers of the presence of bioengineered food, as required in by congressional legislation passed in 2016.

 A 2022 court decision found that the option to receive a text message, by itself, was not enough to satisfy the disclosure requirements in the law. The district court in Northern California held that the text message option did not meet the law’s requirement to provide consumers with “additional and comparable” options to an electronic or digital link.

 The court said that method of disclosure  “merely provided a fourth disclosure option that regulated entities can select instead of the electronic disclosure method.”

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 The three options now are on-package text; an on-package symbol; or an electronic or digital link, with the disclosure option to be selected by the food manufacturer. 

EU, USDA discuss gene editing regs

The European Union’s recent decision to loosen regulations on gene editing technology was one of the topics officials from the governing body discussed with Agriculture Department staff during a visit to the United States this week.

Pierre Bascou, the deputy director-general at the European Commission Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development and one of the officials who participated, told reporters Tuesday that the view of biotechnology on the continent is “very different” than it was 20 years ago. 

“I think for us, biotechnology is one of the elements, one of the innovative practices that can enable us to become more competitive, sustainable."

USDA cancelling some reports

USDA is ending one of two yearly cattle reports, a decision it says was “necessary, given appropriate budget levels." The National Agricultural Statistics Service will no longer publish a cattle report in July. The other report comes out each January. 

NASS is also going to discontinue its Cotton Objective Yield Survey and County Estimates for Crops and Livestock reports.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association called the decision to end the July cattle and the County Estimates for Crops and Livestock reports “completely misguided” and urged NASS to “immediately reverse this decision.”

Lunchables at school targeted by consumer group

Consumer Reports is calling on USDA to remove Lunchables from the National School Lunch Program after its testing found high levels of sodium and chemicals in some kits. USDA allows two types of Lunchables, turkey and cheddar cracker stackers and extra cheesy pizza, to be served through the school lunch program.

Recent tests conducted by Consumer Reports found lead, cadmium – or both – in store-bought Lunchables and similar products from Armour LunchMakers, Good & Gather, Greenfield Natural Meat Co. and Oscar Mayer. One or both of the chemicals were found in all kits, but none exceeded the federal limit on lead or cadmium.

CR also says Lunchable kits made for schools contain up to 930 milligrams of sodium, which is over a quarter to half of a child’s recommended daily intake.

Kraft Heinz said in a statement, “All our foods meet strict safety standards that we happily feed to our own families. We are proud of Lunchables and stand by the quality and integrity that goes into making them.” 

He said it. "We're on a glide path to success here out of the House Ag Committee – House Ag Committee Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa.

Noah Wicks, Rebekah Alvey and Steve Davies contributed to this report.