HOUSE Agriculture Committee chairman Frank Lucas (R., Okla.) will spearhead the debate of the next farm bill, with a markup set for May 15.
Rep. Mike Conaway (R., Texas), chairman of the general farm commodities and risk management subcommittee, told agricultural journalists that the marathon daylong farm bill markup in the House last year, which lasted from 10 a.m. until the early hours of the morning, was the "best legislative day" he has ever experienced on the agriculture committee.
Getting 218 votes can be challenging, Conaway noted, but one party rarely gets it all right. Last year's House markup included many bipartisan votes on contentious issues, such as food stamp funding, dairy supply management and sugar support. Lucas orchestrated the discussion so that views could be openly debated while still staying on task.
Although Republican leadership pressured Lucas to take more time and consider tougher changes in the food stamp program to gain more conservative votes, Lucas said he will still hold listening sessions first with the Republican whip's office so as to maintain his schedule and produce a bipartisan bill.
Last year, the Senate moved first on its farm bill markup and passage. This year, the dynamics in the Senate Agriculture Committee between chair Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) and new ranking member Thad Cochran (R., Miss.) are creating hiccups.
Reports indicate that Cochran holds similar views to House ag leaders, and Stabenow's hope to bring up the farm bill in April now looks impossible.
In January 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a proposed rule that would modernize the poultry slaughter inspection system. Comments were accepted until May 2012, and USDA continues to evaluate the feedback received.
During an April 16 House agriculture appropriations hearing, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he expects USDA to "take action to publish the rule very soon."
The poultry slaughter proposal moves the focus from quality inspection tasks to more food safety inspection tasks. The rule promises to improve food safety and result in a more efficient and effective use of taxpayer dollars.
It would provide a new inspection system for young chicken and turkey slaughter establishments that replaces the current Streamlined Inspection System, the New Line Speed Inspection System and the New Turkey Inspection System.
Vilsack testified that it has been 50-60 years since poultry inspection processes have been reviewed, and the proposed rule is based on a pilot project in 20 plants. He said the process allows inspectors to "focus attention and time on areas where we know pathogen risks are the greatest."
USDA estimates that 3,000-5,000 foodborne illnesses can be prevented by utilizing the new system.
However, since the federal budget requests money to deal with legal fees to overcome anticipated legal challenges to the rule, Rep. Robert Aderholt (R., Ala.) asked Vilsack whether USDA feels that the rule has solid legal foundation.
"We feel we're on solid ground, both adequate factual and legal basis, that is consistent with our mission to maintain food safety for our nation," Vilsack testified.