The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture News As It Happens


Senate Approps approves Ag bill with important amendments

The Senate Appropriations Committee today approved the fiscal year 2015 appropriation for the Agriculture Department and related agencies with amendments affecting school meals, potatoes in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women Infants and Children (WIC), horse slaughter, international food aid and labeling of biotech salmon.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., held a joint vote on reporting out the Ag bill and the military construction bill subject to amendment, and that vote was 30 to 0.

The business meeting today was the first markup of the year. Mikulski noted that the committee was starting its markups a month earlier than last year and said she is determined to move some bills to the floor in June and get to conference.

But she did not say which bills she would move first.

The overall bill provides $20.575 billion to fund the Agriculture Department, the Food and Drug Administration and related agencies. (See link for details.)

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., had said he would offer an amendment to grant relief to schools from some of the requirements of the Healthy-Hunger Free Kids Act, but instead reached a compromise with Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, on a school meals amendment.

Harkin’s amendment includes Hoeven’s proposal to stop USDA from requiring a further reduction in sodium contained in federally reimbursed meals and snacks “until scientific research supports the reduction for children.”

It also requires the Agriculture secretary to report to Congress within 180 days on whether there is an acceptable range of whole grain products currently available to allow schools to plan menus that are compliant with whole grain requirements that go into effect on July 1 and to identify alternative products if they are not available.

The amendment also directs USDA to provide Congress with a “comprehensive plan” for training school meals officials.

Hoeven signed on as a co-sponsor of the Harkin amendment, but said he also wanted to address schools’ cost concerns.

Hoeven considered offering an amendment to require USDA to provide waivers for schools experiencing cost “hardship.” He pointed out that his amendment would be product-specific and was not “a blanket waiver.”

But Harkin opposed that idea, asking, “Are we saying now we have to feed our kids more junk food because it is cheap?”

Hoeven agreed not to offer the amendment after Harkin and Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Mark Pryor, D-Ark., agreed to work on report language on that issue.

(The fiscal year 2014 Agriculture appropriations bill contained language urging USDA to offer waivers to schools that said they were having trouble implementing the new standards, but Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the law prevents him from exempting schools from nutrition standards. In reaction, the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee’s version of the 2015 bill contains a provision to allow schools that say they have lost money on their meals programs for six months to get a one-year waiver from the healthy meals requirements.)

Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, also said it is important to take “affordability” into account because some schools in his state are struggling to afford the required foods.

Jessica Donze Black, the child nutrition officer for the Pew Charitable Trusts, praised the way the Senate handled the bill.

“Weakening school nutrition standards through congressional intervention helps neither our children nor our schools, and so we appreciate the way the issue was handled today by the Senate Appropriations Committee,” Black said in an email.

“Directing USDA to review the practicality of specific nutrition standards and to bolster training and technical assistance will help ensure that schools continue to move forward in serving healthy foods,” she said.

“Given that 90 percent of districts are serving meals that meet updated nutrition standards and many report doing so without financial hardship, the reasonable and productive next step is continuing to learn from these leaders.”

The School Nutrition Association said it supports the Harkin-Hoeven amendment “as a positive first step” but “would have liked to see the Committee go further in addressing the challenges that school nutrition professionals face every day.”

The committee also passed an amendment offered by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Pryor to stop USDA from excluding white potatoes from the WIC program. But the amendment was a compromise compared to the measure passed in the House bill. It would stop USDA employees from enforcing the current ban on white potatoes in WIC immediately.

But it also tells USDA to begin a review of the nutrient value of all fruits and vegetables within the WIC program within 90 days and when that review is complete to follow the scientists’ conclusion.

Collins said that USDA had not followed the latest dietary guidelines in enacting the ban and noted that WIC participants can buy potatoes at farmers’ markets.

Harkin bitterly opposed the amendment, saying it would be the first time that Congress has interfered with the scientists’ recommendation for the WIC program. Harkin also said that the potato purchase plan at farmers’ markets is a small program that had been put in at the insistence of the potato industry. The measure passed on a voice vote, but Harkin noted that he wanted his opposition to be part of the record.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., praised Pryor for working with Collins on a compromise.

“Pryor knew this had the potential to become a hot potato,” Leahy said.

The committee also passed an amendment sponsored by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., to ban inspection of facilities that slaughter horses for meat. Landrieu argued that the inspections would only lead to the export of horse meat from animals that had been fed drugs that are banned for human consumption.

The vote was 18 to 12 over the bitter opposition of Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., who said the ban would only lead to cruelty to horses because they would be shipped to Mexico for slaughter.

Johanns also said that many of the horses are elderly, but Landrieu said that 92 percent of the horses slaughtered were “in good condition” and some had recently run races.

The committee also passed an amendment sponsored by Johanns and Leahy to shift $35 million from the $1.46 billion Food for Peace Title II program that would normally be used for commodity purchases to an emergency account under which purchases could be made in foreign countries.

Johanns said the shift would allow the U.S. Agency for International Development to feed an additional 200,000 of “the most desperate people on the face of the earth. It is about survival.”

He also noted that farm groups opposed it because they want USAID to purchase commodities in the United States. The vote was 16 yes to 14 no.

Finally the committee passed an amendment offered by Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Mark Begich, D-Alaska, to require the Food and Drug Administration to label any genetically-engineered salmon it allows to be sold.

Murkowski argued that biotech salmon is different from crops because the salmon would be the first genetically engineered fish.

Johanns called the proposal “another attempt with another product to frighten people” but it passed on a voice vote. Begich noted that a similar measure in last year’s Senate bill was dropped out in conference and said he hoped it would stay in this year.

Summary — Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies: Fiscal Year 2015 Appropriations Full Committee Mark
Allocations — Fiscal Year 2015