WASHINGTON, May 22, 2014 – The Senate Appropriations Committee Tuesday narrowly approved a bill authorizing $20.6 billion in discretionary spending for USDA and FDA in FY 2015, while adding amendments that would effectively ban horse slaughter in the U.S., mandate labeling for genetically modified salmon, and allow potatoes to be purchased in the Women and Infant Children (WIC) nutrition program.
Senators also agreed to work on wording that would give the government more flexibility in dealing with school districts that say they can’t meet school-lunch nutrition standards and approved an amendment that would boost the amount of food aid that can be purchased overseas for emergencies in the Third World.
The bill’s discretionary spending is $90 million below the enacted level for FY 2014, which ends Sept. 30, but $28 million above the level requested by President Obama. Many of the bill’s provisions are similar to those approved earlier this week by the agriculture subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. In the end, the House and Senate funding bills will have to be reconciled in a conference committee.
“By making smart investments in agriculture, we’re helping secure America’s economic future,” said Sen. Mark Pryor, D.-Ark., chairman of the panel’s agriculture subcommittee, which crafted the bill.” He said the “common-sense, bipartisan” legislation “will help strengthen our agricultural sector, grow the economy and create jobs here at home.”
The longest debate was centered on the potato amendment, sponsored by Pryor and Republican Susan Collins of Maine, who said the potato was the only vegetable or fruit to be excluded from the WIC program in question. She also said that in doing so, the government had relied on dated nutrition research.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said he had nothing against potatoes, but said Congress should not be championing any specific commodity. He said an expedited scientific review of the latest nutritional values by the National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine, should come before the potato was added to the WIC shopping list, not afterwards, as Collins was proposing. Harkin lost in the end, but only after casting “a very vociferous” no vote.
“Who would believe the lowly potato could become such a contentious issue,” Collins mused at one point.
The amendment requiring genetically modified salmon to be clearly labeled as such passed easily on a voice vote, at the urging of Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who said if something went wrong with the “frankenfish” experiment, it would threaten an industry that directly or indirectly provides employment for 63,000 people in her state.
The FDA has not approved GMO salmon, but has issued a preliminary finding that the fish, which would be the first genetically modified animal approved for human consumption, “would not have a significant impact on the U.S. environment.”
Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., argued against the amendment, saying that labeling GMO salmon a “frankenfish” was needlessly creating a “climate of fear,” and he said such products were needed to feed an exploding word population among diminishing resources.
Johann also tried in vain to defeat the horse-slaughter amendment, which would prohibit the USDA from using any of its funds for inspection at horse-slaughter plants. He said the proposal would not stop horse slaughter, but instead result in more horses being shipped to Mexico, where they would die under much less humane conditions.
Johanns, a former U.S. agriculture secretary, had more luck in pushing a plan to increase the amount of emergency food aid that can purchased overseas, near the areas where it is needed, as part of the Food for Peace Program, by $35 million. He said the plan could help an additional 200,000 of the “most desperate people in the world.”
The senators also agreed to seek wording that would give the secretary of agriculture some flexibility in dealing with school districts who say they can’t afford to meet USDA nutrition programs for school lunches, or can’t find enough of the healthy foods called for, including whole grain products.
Harkin argued that rather than allowing school districts to seek temporary waivers from such requirements, as called for in the spending bill before the House, the secretary of agriculture should be allowed to identify alternative products.
“Are we saying that we want to feed our kids more junk food because it’s cheaper,” Harkin asked. “No, we don’t want to do that.”
In a related matter, the USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack on Tuesday held a conference call with reporters to call attention to the House waiver plan, which he said would undermine child nutrition standards. The retired officers, members of a group called Mission: Readiness, said more than one in five young Americans is too overweight to enlist in the armed services. About three-fourths of all young Americans between 17 and 24 are rejected from the military for reasons including being physically unfit, they said.
“Schools should always be the place where we set the standard of excellence,” said James A. “Jamie" Barnett, a retired Navy rear admiral.
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