WASHINGTON, Sept. 17, 2015 - The Senate Agriculture Committee reached a bipartisan agreement with the House for extending grain inspection standards and livestock price reporting.

The legislation, which leaders of the House Agriculture Committee support, would ensure that grain inspections could continue during a labor dispute. 

The bill (HR 2051), which the Senate panel approved on a voice vote, includes a key compromise sought by grain traders that would allow private inspections of grain when government inspectors are unavailable because of a labor disruption, but both the buyers and sellers would have to agree. 

“The changes we make in this legislation are focused on improving transparency and predictability throughout the federal grain inspection system. They help maintain our positive global reputation,” said Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kansas. 

The bill also includes an extension of the National Forest Foundation Act. 

All three bills passed the House as separate bills, so the combined legislation will need further action in the House. 

The price reporting bill contains changes that are designed to capture more transactions in swine and lamb reporting. The legislation also will require the Agriculture Department to do a study on the program and deliver it to Congress by March 2018. Unlike the House-passed reporting bill, the measure wouldn't deem the price reports an essential service, which would guarantee they continue during a government shutdown. The Senate legislation drops that requirement. Roberts, in his statement, urged USDA to keep the reports "on schedule any day that the markets are open."

The bill would add a “negotiated-formula” price category that the National Pork Producers Council said would better reflect the total number of hogs negotiated each day regardless of how the prices are reached.  Another provision would require that prices on pigs sold after 1:30 p.m. be included in the next morning’s report.

The pork producers were eager to see the program declared an essential service to avoid a repeat of the system's shutdown when the government closed in October 2013. But some Senate Democrats were concerned that guaranteeing the system would keep operating during government shutdowns would take some of the political pressure off Congress to avoid them, said officials with the group.

Both the grain inspection and price reporting laws are set to expire Sept. 30. The legislation extends both to 2020.

Authorization for the National Forest Foundation expired in 1997. The bill would extend it though fiscal 2018. The foundation helps fund improvements to the forests. 

“Each of these bills helps to strengthen our rural economy -- whether it’s ensuring our farmers and ranchers have the tools they need to be competitive in the global marketplace or helping to revitalize the 193 million acres in our national forest system,” said Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the committee’s ranking Democrat.

The changes to grain inspections procedures are designed to avoid a repeat of what happened last year at Washington's Port of Vancouver when state inspectors refused to go to work during a labor demonstration, citing safety concerns. Washington is one of five states where state agencies conduct export inspections under authority of USDA.

"Congress mandates that USDA has an unequivocal obligation to ensure that official grain inspection and weighing services at export elevators are provided in an uninterrupted, reliable and consistent basis," the presidents of the National Grain and Feed Association and the North American Export Grain Association said in a joint statement. 

"The legislation approved today by the Senate Agriculture Committee takes important steps to reinforce this mandate and hold USDA accountable."