Ag Insider: Bird flu likely to return


Guest writing the Ag Insider column for the Food and Environment Reporting Network this week. Here’s Monday’s, Tuesday’s, Wednesday’s, and Thursday’s columns. 

Avian flu expected back in the fall

This spring the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza epidemic tore through poultry farms across 15 U.S. states, leading to the death of 48 million birds. The bulk of those were egg-laying hens, though turkey production was affected, too.

On Tuesday, Harvest Public Media reported on steps producers were taking to prepare for the possibility that the disease will return with colder weather, in which it thrives. USDA officials have said it is “highly probable” that it will return, and could spread to other regions.

While the USDA has not been able to determine the exact cause of disease spread – wild migratory birds introduced the virus — farmers are increasing their biosecurity measures in the hope that it doesn’t infect southern broiler chickens.

Bloomberg’s Alan Bjerga wrote Thursday about congressional efforts to offer more taxpayer support to affected producers. Currently, the federal government pays for cleanup and livestock losses through an indemnity program.

Both Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Iowa Rep. Steve King have proposed a crop-insurance-style program in addition to the indemnity program. The current federal crop-insurance program subsidizes 60 percent of farmers’ premiums. The USDA is expected to release a study of a new program’s feasibility this fall.

The problem with an insurance approach, Bjerga writes, is too much risk. Private insurers say it’s almost impossible to write policies covering bird flu losses as long as the risk of another outbreak remains high.

Des Yawn, senior vice president at Palomar Insurance in Atlanta, is studying how to pool bird risk with other hazards, but hasn’t generated interest from underwriters. “If there’s a risk that what happened this year happens every year, there isn’t going to be much interest,” he said.

Chipotle stung by ad campaign

The Washington Post’s Roberto Ferdman reported Thursday on the launch of a new advertising campaign targeting the fast-casual restaurant chain Chipotle. Kicking off with a full-page ad in the New York Post, the campaign, funded by the Center for Consumer Freedom, chastises Chipotle for selling high-calorie fare while marketing itself as a healthy alternative. Accompanied by a photo of an obese man who grins as he flexes, the ad says, “Eat two ‘all natural’ Chipotle burritos a week and you could gain 40 pounds in a year.”

The CCF, a nonprofit that lobbies for the food industry, is run by Richard Berman, a food- and energy-industry marketing consultant. Last fall, the New York Times reported on asecret recording of Berman talking tactics to an energy-industry crowd and saying, “You can either win ugly or lose pretty.” He told company executives they “must be willing to exploit emotions like fear, greed and anger and turn them against the environmental groups.”

Chipotle’s marketing has upset agribusiness interests in the past. And other, less-vested parties have noted the seeming contradiction between some of the company’s health claims and its portion sizes and the calories in its food. Earlier this year, a New York Timesanalysis found that “most meals” at Chipotle had “more than 1,000 calories and almost a full day’s worth of sodium.”

Candidates should talk about the ‘F-word,’ but probably won’t

Political reporters from newspapers in Chico and Sacramento, California, and Reno, Nevada,collaborated on a list of “10 issues that the presidential candidates absolutely need to discuss but probably won’t.” The “F-word” — as in food — comes in at number four. Reporter Janelle Bitker, of the Sacramento News & Review, who wrote the food item, says that the one political issue every American encounters is food.

Bitker laments that despite 78 million obese Americans, the proliferation of antibiotic use in animal production, and the specter of climate change, the White House is not doing enough to address the problems afflicting the U.S. food system. She points out that hunger affects millions across the country yet the recently passed farm bill cut funding for SNAP, formerly known as food stamps.

“In the coming years, more and more Americans are expected to go to bed hungry night after night—and Washington, D.C., is actually helping this health crisis unfold,” Bitker writes.

Vilsack to step up nutrition battle next week

The USDA announced today that Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack will continue his campaign for reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, otherwise known as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, with a speech at the National Press Club on September 8. Vilsack has been very public of late in his support of the program, pushing back against its critics and urging Congress to move on reauthorization. The act, which funds school-meal programs, is up for renewal this month.

Passed in 2010, the act set higher standards for school meals, requiring more fresh fruit, vegetables and whole grains, and less sodium. It was a signature achievement of the Obama administration. The new standards have been criticized as too costly for school districts, but food companies are now on board with the changes because the new lunch program has been profitable.

The USDA says at the NPC event the secretary will call on Congress to reauthorize a strong suite of child nutrition programs, and will be joined by Dr. Sandra Hassink, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and Jessica Donze Black, the director of child nutrition at the Pew Charitable Trusts. On Tuesday, Vilsack made the case for Congress not to “take a step back” on feeding programs at an appearance at the Center for American Progress.

Gabrielle Levey writes in U.S. News and World Report that another worry about reauthorization is the glut of critical legislation that remains to be passed in a short period of time. The reauthorization debate is slated to coincide with a ten-day stretch that Congress has set for debating the Iran nuclear deal and funding the government.

Industry survey: Less than half of Americans think U.S. ag is sustainable

In a new survey by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, a public-relations arm of the Farm Bureau and commodity groups, fewer than half of respondents agreed with the statement, “The way that most of today’s farming and ranching operations in the U.S. grow and raise food meets the standards of sustainability.” On Wednesday Agweb published the results of the survey, saying USFRA aims to “engage in dialogue with consumers who have questions about how today’s food is grown and raised.”

The new survey centered on the perception consumers have of the environmental impact of agriculture, and what they expect from farmers in terms of stewardship. In 1990, Congressdefined “sustainable agriculture” in the farm bill. USFRA asked respondents what their definition was. The results were strikingly similar, with respondents’ top priorities being raising and growing food that is safe to consume, humane treatment of farm/ranch animals, and minimizing the environmental impact.

Survey respondents also were more interested in hearing about farmers’ plans for future environmental improvements than about past accomplishments or a farm’s generational history.

Rubio draws conservative ire over sugar support

Writing in the National Review on Monday, Windsor Mann castigated presidential candidate and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio for defending the federal sugar program. While receiving far less direct federal subsidies than other crops, sugar does enjoy price supports and other government help. Rubio’s support stems from Florida’s long history of sugar production.

Viewing it as an unnecessary federal giveway, conservative groups have made dismantling the U.S. sugar program a priority. On August 18, the Heritage Foundation’s Bryan Rileysuggested that the sugar program was responsible for the loss of 600 jobs due to Nabisco’s decision to shift the production of Oreo cookies from Chicago to Mexico.

Farm Policy Facts, an agriculture-industry-funded group aligned with former House Agriculture Committee chairman Larry Combest, pushed back against Heritage for its opposition to farm-bill programs. “I see zero conflict between conservatism and supporting American agriculture,” Combest said.



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