WASHINGTON, April 22, 2015 – Farmers and grain traders want to avoid a repeat of what happened last year when a labor dispute at the Port of Vancouver in Washington state slowed Asia-bound grain shipments. The problem was that state employees who inspect grain shipments under authority from USDA wouldn’t cross picket lines. State officials said they were concerned about the inspectors’ safety, and USDA declined to step in, citing the same reason.

Now, the industry is looking to Congress to write some provisions into the federal grain inspection law to prevent state inspections from stopping again during a labor dispute. The Grain Standards Act, which authorizes USDA’s use of state agencies to conduct inspections, is up for renewal this year for the first time in a decade.

In a letter this week to the House Agriculture Committee, the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) said “that there must be a mechanism in place to ensure that the flow of trade is not disrupted.”

The House Agriculture Committee could markup a reauthorization bill yet this week and it’s likely to include a provision setting up some process to ensure inspections continue during a labor dispute. The committee’s ranking Democrat, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, wouldn’t say what language he would endorse. “We’re putting together a compromise that everyone can live with,” Peterson said.  

The industry isn’t quite in sync, however, on how far Congress should go in ensuring that inspections would continue during a slowdown. NAWG says that the Federal Grain Inspection Service (FGIS) should be required to step in when similar situations occur or use inspectors from other states to do the work. Others in the industry are talking about allowing the use of private inspectors as well.

A representative of the American Farm Bureau Federation will tell a House Agriculture subcommittee on Wednesday that the group would support the use of accredited private entities as well as outside state agencies in situations such as what happened in 2014. But the group has a longstanding policy against using private inspectors for export grain on a continual basis.

“We think it’s a good idea to have a contingency plan or contingency process in place,” said Dale Moore, AFBF’s executive director of public policy.

The National Grain and Feed Association and the North American Export Grain Association, which also were to be represented at Wednesday’s hearing, have not been talking publicly about what they want.

USDA’s Federal Grain Inspection Service directly inspects about two-thirds of exported grain, including shipments through Louisiana and Texas, and delegates the work to state agencies in five states: Alabama, South Carolina, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin, according to the Congressional Research Service.  Private companies are allowed to inspect domestically traded grain under oversight by FGIS. Federal grain inspections could continue beyond Sept. 30, if Congress doesn’t extend the expiring law, but USDA could lose funding for the state inspection services, according to CRS.


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