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Follow The Money: Congress Uses Budget Bill To Rewrite Food Policies

Congress has unveiled a spending bill to keep the government running that also weighs in on plenty of food policy issues.
Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
Congress has unveiled a spending bill to keep the government running that also weighs in on plenty of food policy issues.

When lawmakers — and lobbyists — use the budget bill as a vehicle to slip in new policies or upend regulations, it reminds me of my kids at the grocery store.

They ask for Nutella. I say "No." But when I'm not looking, they slip it into the cart. And it's only the next day I see it slathered on toast.

So, here are some examples of food and agriculture provisions that have been slipped into the omnibus budget bill just unveiled by congressional leaders. So far, this is just a draft. But the bill appears likely to pass in both chambers of Congress, and President Obama has indicated he's inclined to sign it into law.

One provision would give grocery stores and other food retailers more time to comply with regulations that will require them to post calorie information on menus. This provision could benefit pizza chains that have joined together to lobby for flexibility. The industry has argued that it would be too tough to comply, because a pizza has millions of possible topping — and calorie — combinations, and few customers actually order in-store anywhere. (The industry spells out its case in this video.)

Another example: a provision to change FDA policy on "partially hydrogenated oils so that the baking industries and small businesses are not subject to frivolous lawsuits." As we reported in June, the Grocery Manufacturers Association has said it would ask the FDA to allow some low-level uses of trans fats in certain products.

Another issue: school lunch regulations. One provision gives schools flexibility in how they implement nutrition standards aimed at putting more whole grains on kids' plates, as spelled out in the Healthy, Hungry-Free, Kids Act. Another provision could halt further reductions in the sodium content of school lunches.

It's not uncommon for the spending bill to include a grab bag of nonbudgetary items thrown in at the last minute. And depending on what side of an issue you're on, it's either a highly effective process or an unfair way to assert influence and undermine laws.

Take the whole grain issue. The School Nutrition Association, which represents school food administrators and has been lobbying for these changes, views this as a win. In its view, the changes provide schools with the flexibilityneeded to keep their cafeterias operating in the black.

"By maintaining menu planning flexibility in the Omnibus Appropriations Bill, Congress is helping schools manage some of the challenges they have encountered under updated regulations," Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the SNA, told us by email.

But public-health advocates have criticized the SNA's requests as a rollback of the Healthy, Hungry-Free Kids Act.

"Given the good progress that schools are making to improve school foods, the rider is unnecessary," says Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Less than 10 percent of schools are asking for waivers to the whole grain requirements, and over 95 percent have reduced the sodium content of school lunches."

Dietary advice is only the start of this spending bill's impact on food policy.

The bill also will abolish the requirement that meat labels disclose where an animal was raised and slaughtered. Big meat packers have been pushing for this change, as have foreign countries. The World Trade Organization has ruled that these labels hurt farmers in Canada and Mexico, and those countries were set to impose up to $1 billion in retaliatory tariffs on U.S. goods. Repealing the law should end this trade dispute.

The Food and Drug Administration is also happy. It just finished drawing up new rules for farms and food processors, but it needs money to enforce those rules. This bill would give the agency close to what it requested — an increase of $104.5 million — to beef up its food-safety operations.

Supporters of Vermont's GMO labeling law, which is set to go into effect next year, breathed a sigh of relief. Some big food companies have been pushing Congress to pass a law that would block state attempts, like Vermont's, to require labeling of food made from genetically modified crops. There were rumors that the spending package would contain such language, but it does not.

The spending bill may also delay the arrival of genetically engineered salmon, which just got a green light from the Food and Drug Administration. There's a provision in the bill that blocks any commercial sale of those salmon until the FDA finalizes its guidelines for labeling GMOs. Finalizing those guidelines could take months — or even years.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.
Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent.
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