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Riders on the storm: How the $1.1 trillion government spending bill impacts our food system

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2016 January Issue Newsletter

By Dan Bensonoff

On December 18th congress ratified a $1.1 trillion government spending bill for the following fiscal year in a document that spanned 2,242 pages. This bill, also known as the Omnibus Appropriations bill, includes a collection of “riders”. These riders are unrelated laws that were tacked onto this gargantuan bill in an effort to circumvent the typical law-making process. Indeed the bill was so long and ratified at such a quick pace that, according to Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), “no one [in Congress] had a chance to read” the bill, thus making the addition of certain controversial legislation much easier. Let’s take a look at how this motley crew of riders will affect our farms and markets.

Food labels lose their COOL

Since 2013 all meat sold in this country has required a label that specifies in which country the animal was born, raised, and slaughtered. This regulation, known as “country of origin labeling”, or COOL, was overturned in the omnibus bill. The introduction of this new label back in 2013 caused an uproar from trade countries such as Canada and Mexico (not to mention the meatpacking industry) who claimed it violated WTO free-trade law, putting “ a disproportionate burden in record-keeping and verification requirements on meat producers and processors[i].” Canada and Mexico won the right to retaliate against the US by slapping $1 billion in retaliatory tariffs on US goods.  [N1]  

The beef industry itself is divided on the overturning of the labeling program. Some, like rancher Jim Dinklage, believe that without such labels beef will “go the same way as the textile industry” towards countries that offer a cheaper labor force[ii].  But feedlot manager Mike Briggs says the labels have not increased US beef sales enough to justify the additional costs of separating animals at his feedlot, which raises cattle born in different countries, and so must be kept in separate pens[iii]. Overall, this is a big win for industry groups and has many worried that future trade agreements, such as the trans-pacific partnership, may continue to infringe on rights of consumers and policy-makers.

The DARK rider subverted

Even with the loss of COOL, consumer-rights groups do have reason to celebrate with the non-appearance of the Deny Americans the Right to Know (DARK) act in the omnibus. This bill, supported by big industry groups such as the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association (GMA), was intended to pre-empt states from enacting GMO-labeling laws. Both Senator Markey and Senator Warren of Massachusetts were among the small team of congressmen who blocked the DARK rider. This victory is particularly meaningful for Massachusetts residents, as it means our GMO-labeling bill can continue to move through congress the following year. This battle is not yet over, however, as the GMA vowed to continue pushing for the DARK act when congress resumes in January.

School dietary regulations loosen

Dietary guidelines for school breakfast and lunch programs have come a long way since Michelle Obama came into the White House. In the last few years school systems have been obligated to offer 100% whole grain foods, a major change from the days of Wonder Bread and pizza. But that rule took a hit with the omnibus, which now allows for exceptions to the 100% rule if a school system can prove that it cannot afford or access whole-grain items.

Recently added limitations on salt were also slackened until more scientific studies conclude that curbing salt is important for adolescent health. This change goes against American Heart Association’s recommendation, which says “any move to delay the further reductions of sodium in school meals — whether it be in a salty slice of pizza, an order of fries or even a salty condiment — will harm kids' health.[1]

Other noteworthy ag riders

Here are a few other riders that hitchhiked their way into the Omnibus:

  • $2.94 billion will go toward agriculture research, a slight increase from last year’s number. Of particular note, the Sustainable Ag Research and Education (SARE) program received a 9% increase in funding.
  • This year will see a $250 million increase in food aid to other countries, particularly to the Middle East and Africa.
  • Funding doubled for the Food Safety Outreach Program, which will provide grants for food safety training to small and mid-sized farms[N2] .
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