‘Buy American’ provision survives in US Farm Bill, big win for Alaskan pollock

News   12/12/2018 - Nguyễn Thi Thanh Dung

Alaskan pollock harvesters and processors have scored a major victory over their Russian competitors in the waning moments of the 115th US Congress, promising to end their dominance in US school meals.

A provision championed by senator Dan Sullivan, an Alaskan Republican, to close a major loophole in the US Department of Agriculture's “buy American” food rules for school systems, has survived and is included in the text of the final 2018 farm bill conference report released Monday night by House and Senate agriculture committee leaders, Undercurrent News has confirmed.

The legislation must still go back to the floors of both chambers for final votes before Congress concludes, which is expected to happen by Dec. 21. But those final steps are considered largely perfunctory and president Donald Trump could wind up signing the bill before the end of this week.

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Republicans and Democrats have agreed to compromise on the stickier issues contained in the farm bill, largely removing controversial new work requirements for individuals wanting to participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), previously known as "food stamps", legalizing industrial hemp and making changes to forest management practices.

“The 2018 Farm Bill is our opportunity to make the American food and agriculture systems work more efficiently. I’m pleased to say we have done just that in this conference report,” Kansas Republican Pat Roberts, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, is quoted as saying in a statement jointly issued by the agriculture panels' leaders. “As promised, this farm bill provides much-needed certainty and predictability for all producers – of all crops – across all regions across the country.”

Schools buy Russian pollock to save $.04 to $.06 per serving

The USDA already maintains rules that require the National School Lunch Program to serve children US-sourced products. However, the Alaska pollock industry has maintained that strapped-for-cash school systems are taking advantage of giant loopholes, resulting in some 60% of the pollock they serve to be what they claim is less expensive and inferior, twice-frozen fillets sourced originally from Russia.

As a staffer in Sullivan’s office explained earlier to Undercurrent, the “buy American” provisions of the National School Lunch Act of 1988 require the purchase of food products that are “processed in the United States substantially using agricultural commodities that are produced in the United States.”

The term “substantially” means 51% or more of the content -- in a product with multiple ingredients -- must be domestic, but it makes two important exceptions: 1) The product is not available domestically in the US, like bananas, or; 2) The cost of the domestic product is significantly higher.

As noted in a recent statement by the At-sea Processors Association (APA), some school systems have chosen Russian pollock over US pollock due to a difference of just $0.04 to $0.06 per serving. APA represents six seafood companies that maintain interests in or operate 16 US-flag, high-tech trawl catcher/processor vessels in the Alaska pollock fishery,

Also, in the case of Russian pollock, the fish is typically frozen-at-sea in headed-and-gutted form and then processed in China and frozen again before being shipped to the US where the least nutritious value-added processing is being performed, the Sullivan staffer explained.

Sullivan’s provision, listed as section 4207, contained on page 182 of the more than 800-page bill, would require the secretary of Agriculture to, no later than 180 days after enactment, “enforce full compliance with the requirements of section 12(n) of the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act (42 U.S.C. 1760(n)) for purchases of agricultural commodities, including fish, meats, vegetables, and fruits, and the products thereof, and (2) ensure that states and school food authorities fully understand their responsibilities under such act.”

The new provision clarifies that the products covered by the provision be processed in the US and “substantially contain” commodities sourced from within the US or by a “United States-flagged vessel.” Also, within 180 days, USDA must submit a report to Congress providing details about the actions taken to comply with the new requirements.

30 million children served daily

The farm bill is of massive importance to the US agriculture industry, coming before Congress for renewal every five years and often deciding, among other things, how much will be made available in subsidies for American corn and soybean growers as well as nutrition programs for the unemployed. The 2018 legislation will cost US taxpayers an estimated $867 billion over 10 years.

The US seafood industry seldom wades in on farm bill negotiations, but it did this time in an effort to change school lunch policies.

“We are mindful of the need to maximize the use of federal dollars in procuring fish products for school meal programs and for school districts to maximize available school lunch foods,” APA had said in a statement several months ago. “However, it is similarly important to maximize the nutritional value of school lunch meals for children and to ensure that students’ early exposure to fish products is positive in order to promote incorporating more seafood meals into diets consistent with federal dietary guidelines.”

Okeanrybflot vessels Russian pollock

Okeanrybflot Russian pollock vessels.

Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers (GAPP), a  group organized to promote Alaska-harvested pollock, reports having an independent study that found a number of quality and nutritional differences between twice-frozen Russian pollock and once-frozen Alaska pollock products. The Alaskan product, the group said, had a better-cooked flavor, texture, flake and aroma. Also, they noted that the Russian product, when tested, was found to include retention agents, used to compensate for the loss of moisture and higher sodium values, while maintaining slightly lower protein scores.

Neither Patricia Shanahan, GAPP’s executive director, nor Jim Gilmore, APA's director of public affairs, were able to put an exact figure on the total value of the change promised by Sullivan’s provision in the farm bill when contacted by Undercurrent this week.

"There would be some immediate economic benefit to Alaska pollock producers from not having Russian pollock inappropriately substituted for Alaska pollock in federal school lunch purchases when US product is readily available," Gilmore said. 

"But perhaps the greatest benefit would be young consumers eating high-quality Alaska pollock products and gaining an appreciation at an early age for those fish products.  Currently, we risk turning off young consumers, if they are exposed to poorer quality Russian-caught, Chinese-processed pollock in school lunches."

The National School Lunch Program is estimated to provide meals to about 30 million children daily at more than 95,000 schools and 3,000 residential child care facilities nationwide. In 2017, the federal government spent more than $17.9bn on school meals, the USDA estimates, and that doesn’t include the funds provided by state and local governments or the payments made by students. 

Alaska senator Dan Sullivan.

Other businesses look to benefit from the change, too.

In August, 63 different groups and companies, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, US Apple Association, the North American Blueberry Council, Welch Foods and Del Monte Foods, signed a letter sent to the leaders of the two chambers' agriculture committees to support Sullivan's provision.

Still, as was reported by Undercurrent in September, Sullivan’s provision was never a certainty to advance. It was contained in the Senate version of the farm bill and not the House version. He was not a member of the conference committee tasked with overcoming the differences in bills while facing the distraction of a contentious November mid-term election.

And the inclusion of the buy American provision in the farm bill is just one of the victories scored by the Alaskan pollock industry this month.

As also reported by Undercurrent, Angela Kline, director of the policy and program development at USDA’s Child Nutrition Program, wrote a memo on Dec. 4, declaring that the agency will now allow shelf-stable, dried and semi-dried meat, poultry, and seafood snacks, like surimi, to count as 'meat' in its school lunch programs.

The rule change could create opportunities for seafood suppliers as school lunches will be able to buy surimi products and receive "credit" for meeting the nutritional requirements of the programs. Previously, dried meats were considered extras but weren't credited under the program.

Contact the author jason.huffman@undercurrentnews.com


Keywords: farm bill