WASHINGTON, June 27, 2016 - Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts and ranking Democrat Debbie Stabenow reached an agreement last week on legislation to preempt state GMO labeling laws for food, but now the pressure is on for the Senate to actually pass the bill this week. If that happens, farm groups hope the House will be able to consider the legislation before its August recess.

Much of the U.S. farming sector is preoccupied with the Roberts-Stabenow agreement, but the U.K. vote to withdraw from the European Union – the so-called “Brexit” - is still the biggest thing happening for some exporters and importers. 

The vote is over and the issue supposedly settled, but the confusion and questions about what happens next have just started. U.S. trade with Britain is still done under conditions set up by the EU, and that has exporters here wondering if the U.K. will be rewriting its tariffs and regulations. The U.S. exported $1.8 billion worth of agricultural goods to the U.K., according to USDA data.

People like Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, have lamented that the U.K. will be excluded from European negotiations with the U.S. on the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. And any type of bilateral agreement between the U.S. and the U.K. could be severely hampered by ongoing T-TIP negotiations, he said.

But House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady says now is the time to start protecting the U.S. relationship with Britain.

“American companies, farmers and workers depend on opening markets to our exports and investment,” Brady said in a statement. “In this time of uncertainty, we should now begin to discuss a modern, new trade agreement with the U.K. that not only continues but expands the level of trade between our two nations. At the same time, I am committed to a strong and ambitious TTIP agreement.”

Shoppers getting break on food bill. USDA has lowered its forecast of food costs this year as prices for pork, eggs, dairy, poultry and fresh vegetables decline. The department estimates that food prices will rise just 1 to 2 percent this year, well off the historical average of 2.6 percent. 

Beef prices increased slightly from April to May but are more than 5 percent lower than a year ago because of declining exports. Egg prices fell 6 percent in May (from April) and are 8.3 percent below last year when producers were being hammered by the avian flu outbreak. Prices for dairy products are down 2 percent from a year ago. 

The California drought continues to raise concerns about prices for fresh fruits and vegetables. But so far, USDA says increases should be in line with the historical average. 

Vilsack a longshot VP choice? Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack may be a sleeper favorite to be Hillary Clinton's vice presidential candidate, New York Times Correspondent Jonathan Martin said Sunday on CNN's "Politics Today." Vilsack has "rust belt credibility" due to his Pittsburgh origin and career as a small town mayor and governor of Iowa, Martin said. His advantage for Clinton in Martin's eyes, however, is that his selection would have no impact on Democratic hopes to regain control of the Senate, which would be a drawback for senators from states with Republican governors (and even for Virginia's Tim Kaine, because a successor would be guaranteed to serve only until a November 2017 special election).

USDA expands recall for Vietnamese catfish. The USDA on Saturday published a notice that the California-based U.S. Cado Holdings, Inc., is expanding it recall for Vietnamese catfish products by 2,235 pounds. That makes a total of 27,995 pounds of frozen “swai fillet” that the company is trying to get back because it did not go through the required food safety inspection by USDA.

The initial recall became more fodder for lawmakers and food safety advocates who are defending USDA’s recent takeover of catfish inspection from the FDA, as was ordered in the 2008 and 2014 farm bills. USDA does a better job at intercepting catfish that is contaminated with residues of banned chemicals, supporters say.

There is no evidence that the catfish being recalled is contaminated, but USDA has still warned consumers not to eat it.

USDA began inspecting catfish imports in April and since then the agency has rejected two shipments from Vietnam and one from China.

USDA looks into breeding a tougher bee. Honeybees are used to pollinate billions of dollars worth of crops – everything from apples to almonds - and researchers are still trying to lessen the massive deaths every year, including breeding stronger bees, the USDA said Friday. U.S. beekeepers lost 44 percent of their bee colonies from April, 2015, through April, 2016, according to a new audio posting on USDA’s website.

Jay Evans, head of USDA’s bee lab in Beltsville, Md., said the main cause of the huge bee deaths every year include viruses from Varroa mites, lack of nutrition and chemicals ingested by the bees.

Phil Brasher and Jim Webster contributed to this report.



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