WASHINGTON, Oct. 19, 2016 - The Obama administration is teeing up a series of major regulations that can be implemented as political appointees head out the door or, in some cases, handed off in a form ready to be finalized by a new Hillary Clinton administration, if she’s elected.

The latest of the regulations are three rules from USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) to tighten restrictions on processors’ contracting and marketing practices. USDA sent the rules to the Office of Management and Budget for review on Friday.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack assured the meat and poultry industry that he’ll hold comment periods on each of the regulations, but one of them is being issued as an interim final rule, which would affect when it is published in the Federal Register. The other two rules will be issued in “proposed” form, so they won’t be finalized before Vilsack leaves office.

Other major rules that are near the finish line: 

Biotech regulations. USDA has proposed a sweeping overhaul of the way it regulates genetically engineered crops. The proposed rule has not been released by OMB but it’s expected to broaden the definition of which engineering methods are regulated by USDA while streamlining the regulatory process to focus on GMO crops that are considered most likely to pose a risk.

How quickly the new administration acts on the proposal is another matter. Stakeholders from across the spectrum have been concerned about the direction USDA is taking as it overhauls the Part 340 regulations governing genetically modified organisms. The grain industry, for example, worries that changes seen as easing USDA’s oversight could raise concerns in foreign markets. 

Officials with Biotechnology Regulatory Services, which developed the rule, will be holding a stakeholders meeting Nov. 16. 

Organic animal welfare standards. A proposed rule that the USDA released in April would, among other things, require organic hens to spend time on the ground outside barns. Allowing them to roam on screened porches, a common practice in the industry, would no longer be allowed. Vilsack is getting bipartisan pressure from Capitol Hill to roll back the requirements. He could issue the rule in final form before he leaves office or punt it to his successor to finish. 

SNAP retailer rule. USDA has proposed to require stores that participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to stock a broader array of foods. Vilsack promised the Senate Agriculture Committee in September that the department would alter the rule and address claims that 100,000 convenience stores would be forced to leave the program. But Vilsack said stores should have to offer a “bit more variety and a bit more choice.” This rule is a good bet to be finalized, in altered form, before Vilsack turns out the lights at USDA.

Cutting sodium. FDA is trying to finalize its voluntary sodium reduction guidance, but it would have to hustle to do so before a new president takes office Jan. 20. The extended comment period just ended for four of the eight issues for which FDA sought comment in June, including the feasibility of meeting the short-term (2-year) goals, and whether the baseline sodium concentration values are reasonably representative of the state of the food supply in 2010.

Another question FDA asked: Are there categories where foods have been grouped together that should be separated on the basis of different manufacturing methods or technical effects relating to the potential for sodium reduction? 

By Dec. 2, FDA has asked for comments on the other four issues, related to the 10-year goals and whether there are specific research needs or technological advances (if any) that could enhance the food industry’s ability to meet these goals.

The GIPSA rules. The text of the rules USDA sent to OMB won’t be released until it finishes its review, but in a letter to producers, Vilsack said the regulations were being altered from the way they were originally proposed by GIPSA in 2010. Among the changes, GIPSA is dropping a requirement that packers, swine contractors, or live poultry dealers maintain written records to justify differential pricing and deviations from standard price or contract terms.

GIPSA also ditched prohibitions against packers purchasing livestock from other packers or having exclusive agreements with livestock dealers.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which has long pushed for the regulations, cheered the move but isn’t sure what impact the changes will ultimately have on the regulations. “We need to wait and see what is in the new proposal before deciding what our take is, primarily because we need to see what they will be proposing in the alternative,” said Ferd Hoefner, the group’s policy director.

Despite the changes, the North American Meat Institute and other industry groups criticized the administration for moving forward with the rules. The National Pork Producers Council, for example, said it is especially concerned about the interim final rule defining unfair practices under the Packers and Stockyards Act. The group’s fear is that producers will no longer have to prove in court that a packer’s practices injured or hurt competition but only that the actions were “unfair” or provided an “undue” or “unreasonable” preference to other producers.


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