Legislative Watch: Provide PPE for farmworkers, processors; WTO withdrawal? Meatpacker overtime assistance; state-inspected meat shipments opposed; food prices going up.

P. Scott Shearer, Vice President

May 29, 2020

5 Min Read
Meat cutters on an assembly line
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The "Food Supply Protection Act" introduced by the Democratic members of the Senate Agriculture Committee, would provide protective equipment for farmworkers and employees working in small to mid-sized processing plants and expand anti-hunger efforts.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, says, "The COVID-19 crisis has tested the strength of our nation's food supply chain, creating a ripple effect that's harming our families, farmers and workers. This bill will help strengthen our food supply by redirecting food to families and helping farmers and processors retool their operations."

The bill would:

  • Support food banks and nonprofits to help increase their capacity and address growing demand. The bill will provide infrastructure grants that can be used for additional cold storage and refrigeration, transportation, personal protective equipment, rental costs, and additional use of commercial and community infrastructure.

  • Strengthen food partnerships to prevent food waste and feed families. Through grants and reimbursements, the bill will support new partnerships to make purchases of excess food and increase donations to food banks, schools and nonprofits. These partnerships will promote innovative collaborations with chefs and restaurants and focus on the needs and creative solutions in local communities. They will allow for a diverse variety of purchases and include many areas and products left out of the USDA's current food box program to ensure more people in need and agricultural producers of all sizes and types can access support.

  • Protect workers and retool small and medium-sized food processors. Through grants, loans and loan guarantees, the bill will support upgrading machinery, temporary cold storage, purchasing personal protective equipment and test kits, and cleaning. This funding will assist farmers and small and medium-sized food processors in protecting their workers and help them cater to new markets so they can continue operations and alleviate bottlenecks in the supply chain.

Products eligible for the program would include meat, poultry, eggs, dairy products, seafood, fruits and vegetables.

Groups endorsing the bill include Feeding America, National Farmers Union, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, National Milk Producers Federation, United Fresh and United Farmworkers Foundation.

This bill will be considered when the Senate moves forward on its next coronavirus assistance package.

Withdrawal from WTO urged
Hawley (R-MO) has introduced a joint resolution for the United States to withdraw from the World Trade Organization.

Hawley says, "The coronavirus pandemic has exposed deep, long-standing flaws in our global economic system that demand reform. International organizations like the WTO have enabled the rise of China and benefitted elites around the globe while hollowing out American industry, from small towns to once-thriving urban centers. We need to return production to America, secure critical supply chains and encourage domestic innovation. Pulling out of the WTO is a good first step."

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is opposed to Hawley's efforts. Grassley believes the WTO needs to be reformed but "withdrawing from the WTO would only leave a vacuum for China to fill and diminish America's position of strength."

A number of critics to Hawley's approach point out that withdrawing from the WTO would hurt U.S. agriculture and industries. Countries that remain in the WTO would not be required to offer the U.S. lower tariffs or abide by the trade rules they agreed to as WTO members. U.S. agriculture would face higher tariffs on exports to a number of major trading partners.

The United States has won over 80% of the agricultural cases it has brought to the WTO.

A provision in the 1994 Uruguay Round Agreement Acts allows Congress to vote on continued membership in the WTO every five years. The last time Congress voted on a withdrawal from the WTO in 2005 failed overwhelmingly.

A similar bill has been introduced in the House by Congressmen Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Frank Pallone (D-NJ).

Support small meatpackers working overtime
Many small meat plants are working overtime as a result of the closure or reduced capacity at large plants due to the impact of coronavirus. This has resulted in increased costs for these small plants because USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service charges overtime fees for food inspectors.

U.S. Reps. Dusty Johnson (R-SD) and Angie Craig (D-MN) have introduced the "Small Packer Overtime and Holiday Fee Relief COVID-19 Act" to provide assistance for small plants working overtime as a result of COVID-19.

Under the legislation, meatpacking plants with fewer than 10 employees would be required to pay 25% of overtime and holiday fees and the FSIS would pay the additional 75%. Plants with 10 to 500 employees would be required to pay 70% of overtime fees with the FSIS paying the additional 30%.

Producer groups oppose interstate shipment of state-inspected meat
Producer groups sent a letter to Congress opposing legislation that would permit the interstate shipment of state-inspected meat and poultry. The groups feel that the legislation would raise concerns internationally and was addressed by Congress 12 years ago.

The letter states, "Allowing interstate shipment of state-inspected meat could also hurt international trade. State-inspected product could find its way to processors as an ingredient in processed product that is exported, despite strict prohibitions. Or, more likely, another country would use the fear of state-inspected product being exported as an excuse for establishing non-tariff trade barriers against U.S. meat or poultry. The risk of damaging U.S. meat and poultry exports is real and too great to allow interstate shipment of state-inspected product."

This issue was addressed by Congress in the 2008 farm bill when it established the Cooperative Interstate Shipment program which allows small- and medium-sized state-inspected plants to ship product in interstate commerce "if they satisfy the same rules their federally inspected counterparts meet." Only six states currently participate in the CIS program.

The letter was signed by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, National Chicken Council, National Pork Producers Council, National Turkey Federation and North American Meat Institute.

Food prices projected to increase
USDA's latest "Food Price Outlook" is forecasting grocery prices will increase 2-3% this year. Prices are projected to increase in 18 of 22 food categories. The largest increase is in eggs at 8-9%. Other increases include beef at 3-4%; pork at 2.5-3.5%; poultry at 2-3%; dairy products at 2.5-3.5%; and fish and seafood at 1-2%.

The historical 20 year average increase is 2.3%.

Source: P. Scott Shearer, who is solely responsible for the information provided, and wholly owns the information. Informa Business Media and all its subsidiaries are not responsible for any of the content contained in this information asset.

About the Author(s)

P. Scott Shearer

Vice President, Bockorny Group, Inc.

Scott Shearer is vice president of the Bockorny Group Inc., a leading bipartisan government affairs consulting firm in Washington, D.C. With more than 30 years experience in government and corporate relations in state and national arenas, he is recognized as a leader in agricultural trade issues, having served as co-chairman of the Agricultural Coalition for U.S.-China Trade and co-chairman of the Agricultural Coalition for Trade Promotion Authority. Scott was instrumental in the passage of China Permanent Normal Trade Relations and TPA. He is past chairman of the USDA-USTR Agricultural Technical Advisory Committee for Trade in Animals and Animal Products and was a member of the USAID Food Security Advisory Committee. Prior to joining the Bockorny Group, Scott served as director of national relations for Farmland Industries Inc., as well as USDA’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Congressional Affairs (1993-96), serving as liaison for the Secretary of Agriculture and the USDA to Congress.

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