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9 Things You Should Know About the New Farm Bill

The House and Senate will vote soon on the new bills -- but there are important differences.
 
 
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This week, both the House and Senate Agriculture committees adopted their versions of the 2013 Farm Bill. This is the latest move in the long-running attempt to pass a “normal” 5-year farm bill to replace one that was last passed in 2008. Several attempts to pass a farm bill in 2012 were  unsuccessful and the farm bill that is currently in effect is a short-term extension that expires in September 2013.

There are some significant differences between the House and the Senate, in both what their bills actually contain and in the process used to get them through the committee. Both sides had an abbreviated process, skipping the normal step of conducting a series of hearings to explore various issues before writing the bill. But the Senate Agriculture Committee took the streamlining even further, managing to discuss, amend and pass its version of the bill in a little under three hours on Tuesday. The House Agriculture Committee finished theirs in a marathon session that took most of the day, wrapping up just before midnight Wednesday night.

Now each bill (HR 1947 and S 954) has to go to the floor for the whole body to vote on. The Senate is going first, with leadership claiming they will do the Farm Bill as early as next week. The full House may see their bill in June.

Here are some key differences between the two versions and things to look out for when the bills are on the floor:

1. Fair Markets for Farmers: It’s been a long battle to get the USDA to stop the abusive practices used by meatpackers and chicken processors to cheat ranchers and livestock producers raged on in this round. The 2008 farm bill directed the USDA to write rules to address commonplace abuses in the meatpacking and poultry sector, and the meat industry has been on the attack ever since. After years of fighting to get those rules in effect, the House Ag committee’s version of the Farm Bill repealed the few provisions of the “ GIPSA Rule” that remained, which prohibited some of the most abusive things chicken companies do to contract poultry growers. The amendment also prohibits USDA from taking any action to curb emerging abuses in the meatpacking and poultry sector. The Senate bill does not contain this provision to repeal the rules.

2. Country of Origin Labeling: Just like livestock fairness rules, the meat industry has been out to kill country of origin labeling ever since it was included in the 2002 Farm Bill. Sen. Mike Johanns (R-NE) and Rep. Austin Scott (R-GA) each introduced amendments to repeal mandatory country of origin labeling, using the flimsy excuse that the World Trade Organization decision last year meant the program must end. The USDA is poised to release  a technical change to COOL requirements that address the WTO decision, and there is no need for Congress to get involved in COOL at this point. The amendments were withdrawn in committee (probably because the enemies of COOL did not have the votes to win), but this issue will very likely come up again when the bills goes to the floor.

3. Food Safety: The 2008 Farm Bill shifted catfish inspection from the Food and Drug Administration to the USDA. U.S. consumers and catfish farmers wanted to replace the FDA’s lackluster inspection regime that allowed too many dangerous imports, hurting catfish’s reputation in the marketplace. Ever since, seafood importers have been trying to stop this from happening because they don’t want imported catfish to have to undergo the more rigorous inspection that would come with a USDA program. The House version of the bill repeals the catfish inspection program at the USDA and would move it back to FDA.

 
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