Congress: Where Food Reforms Go To Die?

NPR icon by Dan Charles
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Jewel Samad

Two seemingly common-sense, bipartisan food reforms have gotten mugged on Capitol Hill in recent days. If you're a loyal reader of The Salt, you've heard of them.

First, there's the proposal — backed by an odd-couple alliance of egg producers and animal-welfare activists — to set minimum standards for the housing of egg-laying chickens. Second, the Obama administration wants to change the way that the United States provides food aid to people in foreign countries, buying more of that food close to where it's needed.

Neither proposal seems, at first glance, controversial. Changing the rules for food aid should save money, according to most independent analyses, allowing the program to feed more hungry people. Similar reforms, in fact, were proposed by President George W. Bush. The "egg bill," meanwhile, is a remarkable instance of pragmatic compromise between bitter adversaries.

Any change, however, threatens somebody, and both of these proposals have run afoul of politically well-connected people.

In the case of food aid, the skeptics include American shippers and dock workers, who will get slightly less work if the U.S. sends cash to buy food abroad. They, in turn, have a powerful friend in Congress: Sen. Barbara Mikulski, proud native of the port city of Baltimore and chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. In an e-mail to NPR, Mikulski wrote that "we need to find a sensible center that will allow us to implement smart reforms without jeopardizing U.S. jobs, particularly those in the maritime industry."

In part because of Mikulski's resistance, advocates of reform are now trying a different route entirely — a free-standing bill that's been introduced by Edward Royce, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Its prospects are uncertain.

The "Egg Bill," meanwhile, has some influential supporters. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack brings it up frequently as an exemplary compromise between large-scale agriculture and its critics. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, actually tried to include it in her draft of the farm bill, which is up for renewal (again) this year.

Pork and beef producers, however, object in principle to the notion of federal regulation of farm animal housing — even though, in this case, the egg producers themselves are asking for federal regulations as way to pre-empt state rules that are more troublesome.

When the agriculture committees of both House and Senate finished their versions of the farm bill this week, all mention of guaranteed living space for egg-laying hens had vanished.

In fact, the House committee adopted a provision that could make it more difficult for states to set such standards. This amendment, offered by Rep. Steve King (R-IA), would prohibit any effort by state governments to control the way that their food is produced by out-of-state farmers. The measure is aimed specifically at California's Prop. 2, which is set to ban farmers in Iowa or Idaho from selling their eggs in California, if those eggs come from chickens housed in traditional cages.

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