WASHINGTON, May 19, 2016  - The Senate Appropriations Committee debates its fiscal 2017 Agriculture spending bill today that would boost food safety funding at FDA and pay for setting up a Foreign Agricultural Service post in Cuba. 

The chairman of the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, Kansas Republican Jerry Moran, has been working to make sure a provision is included to curb restrictions that USDA wants to impose on convenience stores that accept food stamps. 

The organic food sector, meanwhile, has been embroiled in a furious lobbying battle over a possible amendment to block or weaken proposed new standards for organic poultry and livestock operations. 

Greg Herbruck, who operates one of the nation’s largest organic egg operations in Michigan, has been in Washington raising concerns about the rule. The proposed regulations would no longer let farms provide outdoor access to their hens simply by allowing them to go out on covered porches. The hens would have to be allowed to roam the grounds outside their barns. 

Herbruck tells Agri-Pulse that 70 percent of organic egg production would have significant problems with the regulations. He says his 2-million-hen operation doesn’t have enough land to meet the requirement, and he says the hens would be exposed to diseases and predators.

But the National Farmers Union and 36 other farm, consumer and industry groups sent a letter to the committee yesterday urging the senators to leave the rule alone. The rule “will provide certainty about what procedures are allowed under the organic program … and maintain the integrity of the organic seal,” the groups say.

House chairman pushes back on TPP. House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady is making clear that the Trans-Pacific Partnership faces an uphill battle in Congress despite the International Trade Commission’s conclusions that the pact would be a net benefit for the U.S. economy

The Texas Republican says the administration is going to have to address lawmaker concerns about aspects of the deal before Congress will consider approving it. Brady says Congress needs to see “implementation plans on key obligations in the agreement to ensure that our trading partners will comply.”

According to the ITC report, the TPP would increase agricultural exports by about $7.2 billion per year by 2032. Agricultural imports by comparison would only increase by $2.7 billion annually.

RFS could be headed to court - again. The EPA may have set up itself for more litigation with its proposal to require usage of 18.4 billion gallons of biofuels in 2017. The renewable volume obligation, or RVO, would allow for 14.8 billion gallons of conventional ethanol. That’s just shy of the 15 billion gallons that’s written into law, but biofuel industry groups could sue them again.

Eight industry groups sued the EPA last year because the agency kept the RVO below the statutory targets because of market and infrastructure concerns. There’s still a chance that the final RVO could increase in November, which also happened last year. But if it doesn’t, Renewable Fuels Association President and CEO Bob Dinneen told Agri-Pulse that many of the same issues are still involved.

“We’ll wait and see what the final is, but all the same legal issues that were relevant in the 2016 RVO, which we litigated, are evident in this rule,” he said. The lawsuit against the 2016 RVO didn’t come until the rule was finalized. It's possible that concerns about the 2017 targets could simply be added to the current lawsuit.

Vilsack takes turn as chef. At yesterday’s Feed the 5000 Washington rally against food waste, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack played sous chef to the famous restaurateur Jose Andres during an on-stage cooking lesson turned comedy bit.

Andres had Vilsack fill up a blender with vegetables, but all Vilsack seemed to be thinking about was the end product. “He’s saying ‘Can you stop talking, so we can eat these?’ He’s hungry,” Andres said, eliciting laughter from the 300-person crowd. “Ok, one for me,” Andres continued as he reached for a bowl to fill with gazpacho.

“One for you? You haven’t done anything!” Vilsack said.

“I’ve been teaching you how to cook!” Andres replied.

Meanwhile, Andres couldn’t resist a dig at Donald Trump. The GOP presidential candidate has sued Andres for $10 million for refusing to open a restaurant in the Republican presidential candidate’s luxury hotel development in Washington. Andres, who has since counter-sued Trump, dropped out of the project over Trump’s characterization last year of illegal Mexican immigrants. 

The chef took his jab at Trump as Vilsack added some pre-cut Mexican avocados to a tomato sandwich.

“It’s avocado from the other side of the wall, if they build it,” Andres said. “No politics here.”

He said it: “I can honestly say that agriculture has saved my life and now I’m looking forward to tomorrow and the day after that.” - Retired Army Colonel John Fant, speaking at a House Agriculture Committee hearing on veteran farmers. Fant said it was the help from West Virginia’s Warrior and Veterans to Agriculture group that helped him overcome post-traumatic stress disorder.

Spencer Chase, Whitney Forman-Cook and Bill Tomson contributed to this report.