By LIZ CRAMPTON
With help from Catherine Boudreau, Maya Parthasarathy, Mel Leonor and Maria Curi
GOTTLIEB’S READY TO MAKE A CALL ON MILK: FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb indicated on Tuesday that his agency intends to crack down on plant-based products being labeled with terms like “milk” and “yogurt” on grocery store shelves. The move could be a huge win for the dairy industry, which for years has fought against the rise of milk alternatives, calling on regulators to enforce the so-called standard of identity.
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“If you look at our standards of identity, there is a reference … to a lactating animal,” Gottlieb said during an interview at the POLITICO Pro Summit. “An almond doesn’t lactate, I will confess. So the question becomes, ‘Have we been enforcing the standard of identity?’ And the answer is probably not.”
How the process will work: FDA plans to solicit public comment on the issue soon before taking further steps to redefine the labeling rules, Gottlieb said, adding that the process may take a year. He acknowledged that whatever road the agency goes down, litigation will likely follow.
“Invariably we’re going to get sued, probably. If you open up [FDA’s] standard of identity, it talks about a lactating animal. But if you open up a dictionary, it talks about milk coming from a lactating animal or a nut,” he said.
A good sign for the dairy industry: The National Milk Producers Federation praised Gottlieb’s decision, but still jabbed the FDA for taking so long to take this step. In a statement, President and CEO Jim Mulhern predicted the debate can be addressed quickly if the FDA moves forward with enforcement. The group argues that consumers are in the dark about nutritional differences between dairy products and plant-based alternatives, and therefore are being misled.
“Once FDA acts to provide guidance to industry on enforcement of existing standards of identity, manufacturers currently playing fast and loose by using standardized dairy terms on products containing no dairy will know the jig is up,” Mulhern said. “Their products have every right to be in the marketplace, but they will have to be properly identified to comply with FDA standards.”
Plant advocates say not so fast: The Good Food Institute, which promotes plant-based meat, dairy and egg substitutes, also viewed Gottlieb’s announcement as a good sign for its interests. In March 2017, it petitioned FDA to undertake rulemaking, asserting that makers of dairy alternatives have a First Amendment right to use labels clearly describing their products. Bruce Friedrich, the group’s executive director, said he believes that once FDA has considered its options, the agency will grant GFI’s petition.
“The government is only allowed to restrict commercial speech if there is a substantial risk of consumer harm and their solution is narrowly tailored to solve the harm,” Friedrich said. “There is no way that the act of censoring plant-based milk makers would be able to clear this clear constitutional bar.”
HAPPY WEDNESDAY, JULY 18! Welcome to Morning Ag, where your host wants to hear from readers whether they believe seaweed is a plant or an animal. That’s the big question for the Maine Supreme Court, whose decision will determine if property owners can trim the “plant” or fishermen can harvest the “animal” like fish from the sea. Send your vote to firstname.lastname@example.org or @liz_crampton. Follow the whole team: @Morning_Ag.
JUST RELEASED : View the latest POLITICO/AARP poll to better understand Arizona voters over 50, a voting bloc poised to shape the midterm election outcome. Get up to speed on priority issues for Hispanic voters age 50+, who will help determine whether Arizona turns blue or stays red.
What role will Hispanic voters over 50 play in Arizona this fall? Read POLITICO Magazine's new series "The Deciders" which focuses on this powerful voting bloc that could be the determining factor in turning Arizona blue.
HOUSE FARM BILL VOTE SET FOR TODAY: The House is now expected to send the farm bill to conference this afternoon after some back-and-forth among GOP leadership about where to fit the vote on a motion to proceed to conference in the floor schedule. After the House vote, the Senate will hold its own motion to go to conference, which Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts on Tuesday said could happen next week.
Which members will get the golden ticket to represent the House on the conference committee? We will find out today, potentially in the morning. Lawmakers speculated that close to 30 members from the House and Senate will make up the committee.
House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway said he’d like to hold the first public meeting next week — before the lower chamber’s members depart for recess. He also wants to set up a powwow with the top four ag leaders in Congress.
Working overtime: If the process goes as planned, Sen. Chuck Grassley predicted Tuesday there’s a good chance of conferees agreeing to a conference report before Labor Day because the Senate will be around for much of August (Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has drastically shrunk the typical monthlong recess this session). Conaway expects committee staffers to continue working through recess.
Grassley, speaking during his weekly phone call with reporters, also said he’s been having discussions with the House on including payment limit language for subsidies in the final version of the farm bill, but declined to say whom he’s been talking with.
SCRUTINY OF SUMMER MEALS PROGRAM INTENSIFIES: USDA hasn’t done enough to improve its reliability in estimating how many low-income children are served through its summer meals program, a GAO official told lawmakers Tuesday per Pro’s Mel Leonor.
Kathryn Larin, director of GAO’s efforts on education, workforce, and income security, said during a House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing that despite being aware of the problem as early as 2016, USDA “has not taken action to improve its estimates.”
The Summer Food Service Program, which feeds low-income children in the absence of school lunches, experienced an increase of more than 30 percent in total meals served from fiscal 2007 through fiscal 2016. That statistic came from a critical report GAO released in May that found estimates of program participation had been calculated inconsistently from state to state as well as from year to year.
Official analyzes key points from the report: On top of recordkeeping issues, Larin said the department doesn’t properly oversee the safety of the sites where meals are served, and has failed to ease the administrative burden placed on organizations that carry out the program on the local level. Representatives from USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service generally agreed with GAO’s recommendations in the May report, which included the need to improve the reliability of participation estimates. GAO’s follow-up to the May report, released Tuesday, is here.
OIG in the mix: Lawmakers also heard from Gil Harden of USDA’s Office of the Inspector General, which is closely examining the program. Harden said that three of the four states his office is auditing — California, New York and Texas — have already shown “widespread improper payment issues like inaccurate meal counts, unallowable expenses and meals served outside of approved times.” The fourth state under audit is Florida.
Does food insecurity rise in the summer? As lawmakers debated how to improve the program, sponsors of summer meal programs in Kansas and New Jersey advocated for more flexibility, such as in when meals can be served and how to determine eligibility, noting that the program plays a critical role in low-income communities.
“We see food insecurity go up during the summer months,” said Adele LaTourette, director of the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition. “Federal summer meals programs are designed to fill that nutrition gap.”
** A message from the Alliance for Fair Sugar Policy: American small businesses and manufacturing workers deserve a fair sugar policy that works for everyone in the supply chain – from farm to retail shelf. Thank you to those in Congress who have supported the widespread, bipartisan effort to modernize the U.S. sugar program. Learn about our efforts at FairSugarPolicy.org. **
FIRST AMENDMENT AN ISSUE AT HOG WASTE TRIALS: A series of high-stakes trials concerning hog farms in North Carolina that has the livestock industry on edge and environmentalists celebrating has an unusual twist: Smithfield argues that a gag order set by the judge is a clear violation of the First Amendment.
In a case that’s attracted heavy local and national media attention, hundreds of residents complain that living near industrial hog farms contracting with Murphy-Brown, a subsidiary of Smithfield, has ruined their quality of life because of noxious smells and sounds. Those plaintiffs were split into dozens of trial groups, and the third is underway. (The first and second trials resulted in multimillion-dollar jury verdicts against Smithfield, which has vowed to appeal).
A few weeks ago, the judge overseeing the trials forbade everyone involved from speaking to the press after a juror in the second trial revealed that he or she had researched the case online and spoke to fellow jurors about what information was unearthed. Smithfield has filed an emergency appeal of that ruling.
Legal experts weigh in: Attorneys not involved with the case told Morning Ag they could see the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit striking down the gag order because the judge crafted it without any request from either side — which is how these are typically done.
Clayton Bailey, a lawyer at Bailey Brauer in Texas who has represented ag companies, suggested that the appeal could play into Smithfield’s long-term plan to win at the appellate level even if juries continue to return verdicts against the company. “Did the company start filing this mandate to start prejudicing the court because it has two other appeals? I think that could be part of their ploy,” he said.
RESEARCH REPORT DUE OUT: The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine this morning will release an anticipated report highlighting major research opportunities in food and ag science. The document is intended to sway Congress and other funders to make additional investments when presented with a clear vision of where the science could go if researchers had more financial backing. Be on the lookout for Pro Ag’s coverage.
— Canadian diplomat shuts down changes to dairy system: Canadian Deputy Ambassador to the U.S. Kirsten Hillman said that scrapping the nation's dairy supply-management system — a proposal the U.S. made in the NAFTA renegotiation — is "unacceptable." Hillman, speaking at POLITICO Pro’s Summit on Tuesday, said there are "a lot of misunderstandings" surrounding dairy "when it comes to the Canada-U.S. trading relationship."
— Appropriations bills on deck: Senate GOP leaders are eyeing a floor vote next week on a spending package to fund an array of domestic agencies for fiscal 2019, including agriculture, a Republican familiar with the plans told Pro Budget’s Sarah Ferris. The House has not yet passed the agriculture bill and would need to vote again on the Senate's package, if it passes.
— Meat company takes action: JBS USA says it has suspended shipments from a pig farm after an animal-welfare nonprofit released undercover video showing workers hitting, kicking and throwing pigs, The Associated Press reports. Pro’s Maria Curi had details of the group’s investigation Tuesday.
— Pig parts for pennies: American pig processors are being forced to sell parts that most Americans won't eat (think hearts and feet) for pennies, losing profits they would have otherwise made selling those parts in China due to two tariffs on U.S. pork totaling 50 percent. China likely won't lack replacement pig parts — the country can rely on its own growing hog industry, as well as imports from Europe. More from Reuters here.
— Chasing escar-growth: Peconic Escargot is the only USDA-certified snail farm, and while its snails aren't cheap, they're having a culinary moment. Peconic's petit gris snails are an invasive species, and the farm's self-proclaimed "head snail wrangler," Taylor Knapp, is betting that they could become a sustainable source of protein. More from The Washington Post here.
— Ag companies test California groundwater law: Companies like Campbell’s are overdrafting California’s aquifers, leading to frustrated residents and small farmers. More from E&E News here.
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** A message from the Alliance for Fair Sugar Policy: Over the past year, we have seen an unprecedented groundswell of voices calling on Congress to modernize the U.S. sugar program, including thousands of small businesses, newspaper editorial boards and taxpayer watchdog, consumer protection, and environmental groups. Thank you to our bipartisan group of champions in Congress who have led the fight to modernize the outdated and outrageous U.S. sugar program, including Reps. Virginia Foxx and Danny Davis and Sen. Pat Toomey. We are committed to advocating for the modernization of the 80-year-old U.S. program. It's time for a spoonful of fairness that creates an adequate supply of sugar based on a reasonable competitive approach - all while keeping an appropriate safety net for farmers. To learn more, please visit FairSugarPolicy.org.