Food policy in five is a column bringing you concise food policy updates that are less “in the weeds,” and more on the farms, on our plates, and on Capitol Hill.
Here are the five things you need to know about food policy this month and why they matter:
1. Romaine Calm
The Center for Disease Control and prevention (CDC) has issued a Food Safety Alert, warning consumers about yet another E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce. This is the second E. coli outbreak of 2018, and 43 people in 12 states have been infected so far. The former outbreak, which occurred in Spring 2018 and was linked to a different strand of E. Coli, caused 210 reported illnesses in 36 states, 96 hospitalizations, and five deaths. Based on new information the CDC has narrowed its warning, advising consumers and retailers not to serve or sell any romaine lettuce harvested from the Central Coastal growing regions of northern and central California.
Why it Matters
An Environmental Assessment Report recently released by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) investigating the Spring 2018 outbreak, identified farms in the Yuma, Arizona growing region as suppliers of the potentially contaminated romaine. The use of water from a nearby irrigation canal located adjacent to a large concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) was identified as the most likely culprit of the romaine’s contamination. Requiring stricter regulations on how CAFOs manage animal waste could play a crucial role in preventing water contamination and avoiding future outbreaks. Limiting the severity of the current outbreak will require full transparency from the CDC and FDA in releasing further information on names of farms, restaurants, and grocery retailers selling the contaminated lettuce.
People infected with the outbreak strain of E. coli O157:H7, by state of residence, as of November 26, 2018 (n=43)
2. Democrats Take the House Agriculture Committee
As a result of the divisive 2018 midterm Democrats have gained a majority in the House with 235 Democratic to 200 Republican seats. In the Senate, Republicans held on to the majority with 52 Republican to 47 Democratic seats. With the house under Democratic control, it is expected that House Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-MN) will replace Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-TX).
Prior to the election, the makeup of the committee included 26 Republicans and 20 Democrats. During the midterms two Republicans and three Democrats on the committee were unseated. However, with Democrats now the majority party in the House, the committee has the power to add seven new Democratic members and no new Republicans.
Why it Matters
Two major pieces of the congressional agriculture agenda were left up in the air post-midterms: the 2018 Farm Bill and the fiscal year 2019 appropriations bill. If they are not resolved before the years end, House Democrats could start from scratch when the new congressional session begins in 2019. Chairman Conaway and Republican committee members may have to compromise on some of the Farm Bill’s most contentious items such as conservation spending, commodity policy, and work requirements for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients in order to get the bill passed by the end of the session.
The House Agriculture Committee’s Agenda under Democratic control will extend far beyond the Farm Bill. Democrats will be poised to demand changes to the labor and environmental provisions in the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement during looming discussions about its ratification. USDA Secretary Sonny Purdue’s plan to move the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture out of Washington DC is likely to also be under scrutiny. Only time will tell what can be done for food and agriculture in the hands of a divided Congress.
House Election Results
3. West Coast Soda Wars
Thanks to Oregon voters, the soda industry’s attempt to create a legal blockade against future soda taxes on the West Coast was foiled. Measure 103 on the Oregon ballot would have prohibited any new taxation on the sales or distribution of food and nonalcoholic beverages, but was rejected by voters in a 43 to 57 percent loss. In Washington however, big soda scored a major win with similar measure 1634 passing 55 to 45 percent. The initiative’s passage will effectively ban any future soda taxes in Washington State, though Seattle’s existing soda tax of 1.74 cents per ounce will not be rolled back.
Why it Matters
A strong body of research suggests that soda consumption is a significant contributor to the to obesity epidemic. The taxation of soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages is a promising tool favored by public health advocates to drive reductions in soda consumption and reduce rates of obesity. However, soda taxes are not a silver bullet and have been implemented in several cities across the country with varying levels of success.
Industry vs. public health spending is an important consideration in the success of the proposed grocery tax measures. The soda industry spent over $20 million promoting measure 1634 in Washington State with a Yes! To Affordable Groceries campaign, while public health advocates reportedly spent only $100,000 combatting industry efforts. In Oregon, Soda Industry groups spent a much lower $57 million supporting measure 103, while public health groups successfully countered with $3.4 million spent in opposition. Tensions between the soda industry and public health advocates will likely only intensify as more taxes are proposed and their efficacy is called into question.
4. Immigrant Families Dropping out of SNAP
According to preliminary data released this week at the American Public Health Association’s annual meeting in San Diego, the new Public Charge policy proposed by the Trump administration may exacerbate food insecurity among low-income immigrants. After surveying 35,000 immigrant mothers who ‘s families are legally eligible for SNAP, the data revealed that SNAP participation dropped ten percentage points in the first half of 2018 among families that have been in the U.S. less than five years. If implemented, the public charge proposal would make an individual’s use of broad government assistance programs, including SNAP, a consideration in government approval for admission or citizenship in the U.S.
Why it Matters
This data supports the many prior anecdotal reports of immigrant families dropping from public assistance programs out of fear that participation may impact their ability to stay in the U.S. A ten percentage point drop in SNAP participation among low-income immigrant families prior to the public charge policy’s potential implementation demonstrates that although these families rely on SNAP, the chance at a life in the together U.S. is more important than food. The notion that immigrant families who are legally eligible for food assistance are being forced to choose between putting food on the table and keeping their families together has led to a national push to submit comments on the Public Charge rule before the comment period ends on December 10th.
5. Modernizing Agricultural Labor Recruitment
The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) is responsible for overseeing the H-2A program, which allows U.S. employers who meet specific requirements to hire undocumented immigrants to fill temporary agricultural jobs. A rule recently proposed by the DOL attempts to bring the H-2A hiring process into the 21st century by replacing the print newspaper job advertisements that its regulations currently require with electronic job advertisements posted on the Internet. The proposal is part of a broader coordinated effort by the Trump administration and departments of Labor, State, Agriculture and Homeland Security to modernize the H-2A agricultural worker visa system.
Why it Matters
Chronic labor shortages are a huge problem for farmers, and advertising in newspapers isn’t going to cut it to fill this unmet need. In 2018 U.S. farms hired more than 242,700 temporary workers, and H-2A visas have exhibited double-digit growth since 2012. Modernizing H-2A by requiring electronic rather than print job advertisements will help fill agricultural jobs and make utilizing the program less burdensome and costly for employers.
In Sum: Keep romaine from California off of your plate this holiday season — Democrats will take the house and bring a new agriculture agenda in 2019 — Soda taxes remain fair game in Oregon but not Washington — Comment if you think immigration policies shouldn’t instill fear of using food assistance — Temporary farm labor hiring is going digital.
Food Policy in Five will be back in February 2019!
Serena Baldwin is a first year FANPP student who gets way too excited every time Farm Bill season rolls around. She’s a passionate advocate for food and nutrition policies that further public health and environmental goals. When she’s not thinking about food policy, she enjoys yoga and making sweet potato fries in her air fryer.