Roberts, industry criticize USDA over grain inspection
May 8, 2015
At a hearing May 5, 2015, on the reauthorization of the Grain Standards Act, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and grain industry officials were unusually critical of the Agriculture Department's performance last summer when it refused to step in and provide export grain inspection services for 36 days during a labor dispute in the Port of Vancouver.
"As chairman of this committee, I owe you an apology," Roberts said to the grain industry and farm witnesses, saying he was speaking for the Agriculture Department, the Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyards Administration and his own committee which has responsibility for oversight of the inspections, that are required for grain to leave the country.
Roberts was referring to a situation in which the Washington State Department of Agriculture, which had been designated by USDA to provide inspection services, had withdrawn the services during the labor dispute.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had the power to bring in federal inspectors, but he declined, saying that he could not assure the safety of the federal workers. Grain shipments piled up, and orders to foreign countries could not be fulfilled.
Roberts said he considered the situation in Washington state to be "incredulous and egregious," and industry officials complained that USDA had never shown them the safety report on which the decision not to intervene was based.
No one from the Agriculture Department was present to explain or defend the department's actions, although afterward Roberts told reporters he would personally speak to Vilsack about what happened.
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"This situation was tough," Roberts told the reporters.
But Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, questioned the industry's proposals to make changes to the Grain Standards Act.
The grain industry proposes requiring the agriculture secretary to use his emergency powers within a certain period of time and allowing the use of private inspectors that are used for inspection of grain moving in domestic commerce.
The American Soybean Association said the committee should "strengthen" the language in the act requiring the Federal Grain Inspection Service to take action according to a fixed timetable based on a number of hours rather than days or weeks, but the farm group did not recommend the use of private inspectors.
Stabenow noted that Congress had federalized the grain inspection system in 1976 after a scandal involving bribes in which the then-private inspection system threatened the credibility of U.S. exports.
"Our country's agricultural exports have grown six times since then, and the trust associated with the official USDA certificate of inspection is a big part of that success," Stabenow said.
"That certificate also gives our American farmers the reassurance they need that they will receive a fair price for the grain that they worked so hard to produce."
Brown noted that the labor dispute was "a lockout, not a strike" and that the company locking out the workers was foreign owned.
National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson issued a news release calling for a "clean" reauthorization of the Grain Standards Act.
Johnson, who heads the most Democratic-leaning farm organization, also said NFU was "deeply concerned over the secretary's failure to act during the 2014 disruption at the Port of Vancouver," but that his group still believes "the secretary, in any administration, needs to maintain discretion during such situations."
Johnson said his members are most of all concerned about the "privatization of our grain inspection system."
A grain industry spokesman said that the term "privatization" is incorrect because private inspectors would be under USDA supervision.
Johnson also said he is also worried about the provisions in the House Agriculture Committee-approved reauthorization bill "including the elimination of the agriculture secretary's discretion to send in inspectors, the timeframe in which [the Federal Grain Inspection Service] must respond to a disruption, and the higher prominence given to designated inspection services."
The Senate Agriculture Committee is expected to mark up a bill soon, but Roberts said he doubted the mark up would occur before the Memorial Day break.
–The Hagstrom Report