By Tony Eberhard, IDFA Vice President of Legislative Affairs
Welcome to “Hill of Beans,” a periodic update by Tony Eberhard about the association’s work in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate to advance dairy industry priorities. After working on the Hill for various members of Congress and senators since 2001, Eberhard gives IDFA readers a former Hill staffer’s take on what is going on and how it affects our priorities.
“There is a lot of work being done in the House and Senate that never makes the headlines but affects members’ bottom lines, and I’m hoping these updates will prove useful to you and your organization,” Eberhard said. “I’m titling these updates ‘Hill of Beans’ because to many in national media this information might not amount to much, but to our industry’s agenda in Congress, it is critical.”
Moving the Finish Line
There’s a lot going on in Washington this July. So much so, in fact, that the Senate is going to do the unthinkable: delay the August work period by two weeks. When I say unthinkable, by the way, I mean it. Occasionally, the August work period, customarily a four- to five-week recess when members of Congress go back to their home districts and states, starts late, but sticking around Washington for an additional two weeks is unusual. For members of Congress and their staffs, February through July is a sprint with August as the finish line. August is the time for them to catch their breath and catch up on work. No longer (at least for the Senate). This delay is due to the continuing Senate negotiations on health care and the debt ceiling.
While not front and center, there is still much activity on dairy-related issues in Washington, some of which is going on in the administration. This week, yours truly had the opportunity to listen to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue speak to the School Nutrition Association in Atlanta about the importance of providing our schools flexibility in meal planning, which includes getting low-fat flavored milk back into schools to improve children’s nutrition. To that end, on July 6, it was announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) sent a new Interim Final Rule to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for review. Simply put, we are one step closer to getting low-fat flavored milk back in schools in the 2018-2019 school year. Rest assured, IDFA has been fully engaged on this rule.
Meanwhile, the House Appropriations Committee passed the fiscal year 2018 Agriculture Appropriations bill on Wednesday of this week. This bill not only mirrors the provision from the FY2017 bill creating a process for schools to bring low-fat flavored milk back into schools, but it provides helpful report language as well. The committee report reinforces that the FY2018 Agriculture Appropriations bill language allows schools to have flexibility in serving low-fat flavored milk, while acknowledging the progress that USDA is making, noting that, “The Secretary is taking positive steps to provide greater flexibility and restore local control in serving healthy meals.” Report language, while not legally binding, delivers strong instruction to the administration about what the folks who control their purse strings would like them to do.
There is much of interest in the House Agriculture Appropriations bill, including the following notable items:
- National Facts panel: It’s clear that the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee understands our concerns about the Nutrition Facts panel timeline. As you know, the July 26, 2018, deadline for complying with the new Nutrition Facts panel rules was untenable, made more so by the fact that it was not harmonized with the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard labeling timeline and did not include sufficient guidance on fiber and sugars. Noting the FDA’s June 13, 2017, announcement that it would extend the compliance date for the Nutrition Facts panel final rule, the committee report goes further, stating: “The Committee encourages the Commissioner of FDA and the Secretary of USDA to harmonize the labeling compliance dates to allow food manufacturers to update labels after clear guidance has been provided and in a manner that is cost effective and avoids consumer confusion. The Committee also notes that the FDA has not issued final guidance regarding the definition of dietary fiber and labeling of added sugars. The Committee encourages the FDA to issue these final guidance documents and provide sufficient time for food manufacturers to comply.”
- Natural Definition: As clarifying the meaning of “natural cheese” is important to many IDFA members, it is notable that the committee report stated that, “The Committee commends the FDA for taking the first step towards defining the term ‘natural’ and regulating its use on food labeling by requesting public comment on a number of relevant questions in a November 2015 Federal Register notice. The Committee directs FDA to provide a report within 60 days of enactment of this Act on the actions and timeframe for defining ‘natural’ so that there is a uniform national standard for the labeling claims and consumers and food producers have certainty about the meaning of the term.”
- Standards of Identity: The committee report includes language directing FDA to take another look at standards of identity as they pertain to labeling. Here is the language: “The Committee is aware of the concerns with labeling certain foods and beverages as a dairy product when the product is plant-based rather than derived from animals. The Committee directs the FDA to develop a standard of identity for dairy products based upon the dairy product terms described in parts 131, 133, and 135 of subchapter B of chapter I of title 21, Code of Federal Regulations within 180 days from the date of enactment of this Act. The FDA should issue guidance to industry on how to implement the standard of identity, including how this standard will be enforced.”
Though the finish line for the August break is moving for the Senate, the day-to-day work on regulation reform and funding the federal government continues at a sprint. In fact, we expect to see the Senate Agriculture Appropriations bill soon. At least we all know what the best recovery drink is: a cold glass of chocolate milk.