WASHINGTON, May 5, 2015 – The Senate Agriculture Committee today considered taking action to address the expiring U.S. Grain Standards Act, hoping to reauthorize it before a Sept. 30 deadline.
The House Agriculture Committee approved its own version of a bill last week. Among other things, the bill, H.R. 2088, sets up a process to avoid another issue with labor disputes interrupting grain inspection service. The same hang-ups were discussed at a Senate hearing today as witnesses pressed the committee to reauthorize the bill, but not without some needed reforms like a specific timeline for federal intervention if state inspectors decline to work during a labor dispute. Such was the case last year at Washington’s Port of Vancouver, when Washington state inspectors didn’t inspect grain for more than 30 days.
Tim Paurus, assistant vice president of terminal operations for CHS Inc., said the halting of inspections at the Port of Vancouver sent a bad signal to foreign grain buyers, and that is an issue that should be addressed during the reauthorization process.
"Make no mistake, U.S. foreign buyers took note of this very visible and extreme disruption, which damaged the reputation of FGIS (Federal Grain Inspection Service), undermined confidence of international buyers in the reliability of the U.S. official grain inspection system and raised alarm over whether this could be repeated at other U.S. export ports," Paurus said. “To maintain respect and relevance, the U.S. system...needs to function in a continuous, predictable and consistent manner to facilitate the ability of U.S. farmers and agribusinesses to reliably serve foreign customers and remain competitive in world markets."
Bill Gordon, a board member with the American Soybean Association, said even with the dispute in Washington, foreign buyers still recognize the FGIS as the “gold standard” of grain inspection.
“The credibility that we have is still there, but we need to keep up with that credibility,” Gordon said.
At the close of the hearing, committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, said he felt like USDA and Grain Inspection, Packers & Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) owed commodity groups and grain handlers an apology for the lack of inspectors at the Port of Vancouver and the lack of communication on the issue.
One potential solution floated at the hearing was authorizing ports to hire third-party inspectors, something that Roberts told reporters after the hearing might have trouble getting through his committee.
“I think that raises up some other challenges for us,” Roberts said of third-party inspection. “Right now, I’m not sure I have that as an option. We’ll take a look at it, but I think judging from my members on the committee, that might be a real problem.”
Roberts added that a markup on a companion bill to the House’s legislation would get “done here pretty quickly,” but probably not before the Memorial Day recess, which begins May 22. He said he wants to talk to members of the committee and see where they stand on the issue. Time between now and the start of Memorial Day recess may be scarce because, as Roberts put it, the committee has “several other fish in the pond” awaiting hearings on child nutrition issues and reauthorization of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.
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