by Jerry Hagstrom DTN Political Correspondent
WASHINGTON (DTN) — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack would be prevented from moving forward with a second beef checkoff under the Agriculture section of an omnibus appropriations bill that was released Tuesday night.
The New York Times also reported that “the Environmental Protection Agency would not be limited in its ability to regulate new bodies of water under the Clean Water Act,” despite provisions in the bill passed earlier by the House blocking EPA.
“After months of thorough, business-like, sometimes tough but always civil negotiations, we have reached a responsible, bipartisan and bicameral agreement on funding for government operations for 2015,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., said, in a joint statement.
“As we close in on our Dec. 11 deadline, we now ask that the House and Senate take up and pass this bill as soon as possible, and that the president sign it when it reaches his desk,” the statement said.
“This is the best bill that we are going to get with a Senate that is still controlled by the Democrats,” said Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., who chairs the House Appropriations Agriculture subcommittee.
“Come Jan. 6 when the new Senate gets sworn in, then it is a new day,” Aderholt said.
The overall Agriculture and related agencies bill would cost $20.5 billion for fiscal year 2015, a congressional aide said, down from $20.8 billion in 2014.
The bill would also contain $784 million in cuts to mandatory programs, the aide added.
The beef checkoff provision is in congressional “directives” language. According to a congressional source, Vilsack went too far and wanted too high administrative fees in the checkoff proposal. Vilsack announced earlier this fall he would pursue the creation of a new beef checkoff to add more funding for beef promotion and research. Groups that benefit from the current checkoff program were incensed by the move.
The bill also says the Agriculture secretary shall allow states to grant an exemption from the whole-grain requirements in school-nutrition standards if school-food authorities demonstrate “hardship including financial hardship” in procuring specific whole-grain products.
The bill also forbids USDA from using any salaries and expenses of personnel to reduce the quantity of sodium contained in federally reimbursed meals, foods and snacks below target 1 levels until scientific research establishes that the reduction is beneficial for children.
The School Nutrition Association's recent survey indicating that many school food service directors believe they will lose money or are uncertain whether they will lose money played a role in the outcome on that issue, a source said.
The bill did not follow the SNA's request making fruits and vegetables an option for students instead of mandatory, but the aide said that the battle over school meals will continue next year.
“School lunch is an anti-hunger program,” a congressional aide said, adding that “there are other ways to deal with obesity such as having physical education every day.”
School lunch is supposed to “break even” and when students drop out of school meals, it “upsets the cost model,” the aide said. Students rejecting meals made under the new rules is a bigger problem in rural areas than in urban areas because in urban areas children have other places they can go to eat, the aide said.
Jessica Donze Black of the Pew Charitable Trusts said in an email, “We commend Congress for continuing to support schools in implementing healthy standards by appropriating $25 million for foodservice equipment grants.”
“The appropriations bill should not be deciding nutrition standards but rather providing the funding that is critical to ensure that schools can successfully serve healthy and appealing meals,” Black said.
“It's unfortunate that Congress chose to edit nutrition policy as those decisions should be based on evidence and science, but the compromise is far less damaging than a waiver would have been.”
The bill also allows the use of white potatoes in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC; directs Vilsack to send Congress legislative language on how to establish a country-of-origin labeling program for red meat that is compatible with the World Trade Organization, and prohibits government inspection of horse meat.
There are provisions affecting poultry growers under the Grain Inspection Packyards and Stockyards Administration. Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, ripped into lawmakers over the GIPSA provision. Hoefner said the language would effectively prevent USDA from protecting the rights of farmers in conflicts with meatpackers.
“The rider is so extreme as to effectively gut the law, including an unprecedented action to force the repeal of existing regulations. Adoption of the rider will deny farmers protection from retaliation when they use their First Amendment rights, deny them the right to a jury trial, and even deny them the right to know how the prices they receive are calculated. It is an extreme, radical, and blatantly anti-farmer provision that has no place in an appropriations bill, or indeed in any bill,” Hoefner said.
The Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service got a “slight increase,” the aide said.
The appropriators expressed “concern that the advisory committee for the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans is considering issues outside of the nutritional focus of the panel.”
“The advisory committee is showing an interest in incorporating agriculture production practices and environmental factors into their criteria for establishing the next dietary recommendations.
“The agreement expects the secretary to ensure that the advisory committee focuses on nutrient and dietary recommendations based upon sound nutrition science. The agreement directs the secretary to only include nutrition and dietary information, not extraneous factors, in the final 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”
The fact that Congress will have to write a bill early in the year to fund the Homeland Security Department means that other appropriations matters could come up again, the aide said.
DTN Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton contributed to this report.
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