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House ag funding bill tackles ERS move, hog inspection rule

TAGS: Policy
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Spending bill advances out of committee for full House action in weeks ahead.

On Tuesday afternoon, the House Appropriations Committee passed its fiscal 2020 agriculture appropriations bill, sending it to the House floor for a vote in the weeks ahead. Beyond setting funding levels, legislators also included riders to limit action on advancing a proposed hog inspection deregulation rule as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture's proposal to move the Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute of Food & Agriculture (NIFA).

The full House Appropriations Committee passed an amendment that prohibits USDA specifically from implementing a proposal to deregulate the inspection of hog slaughter plants until USDA’s Office of Inspector General reviews the data used to develop the proposed rule and USDA’s Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) addresses the issues found by the review.

FSIS proposed a rule on Feb. 1, 2018, to create the New Swine Slaughter Inspection System, expanding upon a pilot program taking place in five plants that have experimented with a privatized inspection model since 1998. In those pilot plants, the number of FSIS inspectors was reduced and their jobs performed by company employees. The agency is expected to finalize the rule soon.

Those opposed to the rule have said the deregulation will result in a 40% slash in inspectors, who will be replaced with plant employees. However, FSIS is not reducing the total number of federal inspectors by 40% and is not replacing its inspection personnel with plant employees who will conduct inspections. “FSIS will make inspection staff determinations on a case-by-case basis to ensure that 100% inspection and other critical public health activities are carried out,” the agency said after a Washington Post article criticizing the rule ran earlier this spring.

Jim Monroe, assistant vice president of communications at the National Pork Producers Council, said his group “continues to support the proposed new pork inspection system -- one that has been tested and scrutinized for years -- as it is designed to increase efficiency and effectiveness of the federal inspection process and to provide more flexibility for adopting new food-safety technologies.”

ERS move

The bill also includes language to block the Administration’s proposal to relocate ERS and NIFA outside of the National Capital Region and to move ERS out of USDA’s research mission area.

“Our hearing showcased a vast array of informed opinion, including expert witnesses with over 70 years of combined experience at the two agencies who all were opposed to the proposal. I believe this is a bad proposal that jeopardizes the integrity of science and research at USDA,” House Agriculture Appropriations Committee chairman Sanford Bishop (D., Ga.) said.

“By sending the agriculture appropriations bill to the House floor, appropriators are also sending a strong message about their adamant opposition to the Administration’s proposal to relocate ERS and NIFA as well as to realign ERS under the Office of the Chief Economist,” said Alyssa Charney, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition senior policy specialist. “As the Administration continues to move forward with its proposal that threatens the integrity and capacity of these two essential research agencies, we applaud House appropriators for advancing language that, if enacted, would stop this harmful proposal. It sends a strong message that the relocation and realignment is counter to congressional intent, and we urge Senate appropriators to also include language to block this reckless proposal that would be detrimental for agricultural research.”

Additional priorities

In total, the agriculture appropriations bill provides $24.310 billion in discretionary funding, an increase of $1 billion above the 2019 enacted level.

“During a time of great uncertainty due to tariffs and natural disasters, this bill provides $1.8 billion for farm programs, including $30 million to assist the implementation of the 2018 farm bill. It also prohibits the closure of county-level Farm Service Agency,” Bishop said.

The bill also rejects the President’s effort to eliminate international food aid and instead would provide increases both for McGovern-Dole and Food for Peace. “These programs send American commodities all over the world to address global hunger and are an essential tool for diplomacy,” Bishop added.

For FDA, the bill includes an increase of $185 million for a total of $3.26 billion in discretionary funding.

The bill funds the Commodity Futures Trading Commission at $315 million -- a necessary and overdue increase, Bishop added.

House appropriators also increased funding for agricultural research, providing $445 million for the Agriculture & Food Research Initiative. If enacted, this would represent a $30 million increase from the fiscal 2019 enacted level.

“Erratic weather continues to hammer farmers and food producers across the country,” said Thomas Grumbly, president of the Supporters of Agricultural Research (SoAR) Foundation. “They need new ways to handle the disruptive conditions being thrown at their operations, and this requires investing in the science that underpins the innovations needed.”

The program is currently authorized at $700 million but has never received the full amount during the annual appropriations process. This latest $30 million increase from the House Appropriations Committee demonstrates a strong commitment to the program, SoAR said.

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