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Published September 12, 2011, 05:40 AM

Senators offer amendments to ag appropriations bill

WASHINGTON — Amendments to keep the Food and Drug Administration from approving “Frankenfish” genetically modified salmon and to stop the Agriculture Department from cutting back on the use of potatoes and other starchy vegetables in the school lunch program are among those that might be offered on the Senate floor if the Senate version of the fiscal year 2012 Agriculture appropriations bill comes up there as an independent piece of legislation.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — Amendments to keep the Food and Drug Administration from approving “Frankenfish” genetically modified salmon and to stop the Agriculture Department from cutting back on the use of potatoes and other starchy vegetables in the school lunch program are among those that might be offered on the Senate floor if the Senate version of the fiscal year 2012 Agriculture appropriations bill comes up there as an independent piece of legislation.

When the Senate Appropriations Committee met to approve the fiscal year agriculture bill Sept. 7, several senators offered amendments, but ultimately deferred to Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Herb Kohl, D-Wis., who asked them to wait to bring those bills up on the floor. The senators, however, expressed concerns that, because of the the shortness of the congressional schedule, the agriculture bill might be merged with others.

“I am a little concerned that each individual bill will not be moved on the floor,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, author of the salmon bill.

Fish fears

Murkowski wants to prohibit funding for the FDA to consider approving genetically modified salmon as food. The salmon under consideration would take genes from several types of salmon and create a salmon that would be the size of an Alaskan king salmon, but grow “in a remarkably reduced time,” she said. Many people in Alaska have raised concerns that the salmon could escape from fish farms and pose a risk to the wild salmon population, she said, noting that Alaska fishermen are “very fearful” that the genetically modified salmon could impact prices and demand.

Murkowski also said that FDA usually is accused of moving slowly on its approvals, but in this case is moving too quickly, although Aqua Bounty, the Massachusetts company that developed the salmon, first applied to the FDA for permission to sell the fish in 1995.

Kohl told Murkowski that if she insisted on bringing up her amendment today, he would oppose it.

“The Senate should not try to overrule scientists, “Kohl said.

Such Senate action, he added, could “dissuade investment in other biotech products.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told Murkowski, “I don’t like genetically modified anything,” but added that this situation had “caught us cold” and that she would prefer to “do due diligence” before voting on the amendment. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., also noted that she would want to check with fishery experts in Louisiana before voting on it, and Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Ray Blunt, R-Mo., said he also would oppose it.

Murkowski concluded that she would “pay particular attention to my colleagues from the coastal states” and hold her amendment. But she added that if the agriculture bill does not come up on the floor, “you can all look forward to a visit from me to discuss Frankenfish.”

Potatoes in school lunch

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she had decided not to offer an amendment Sept. 7 to stop the Agriculture Department’s Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services division from proceeding with a school lunch rule that would limit the servings of white potatoes in the school lunch program, but that she still has “grave concerns” regarding the rule.

The Agriculture Department is considering a restriction on white potatoes and the other starchy vegetables because an Institute of Medicine panel noted that children have access to those items and need other vegetables both for their nutritional value and to reduce obesity.

Rather than limit potatoes, she said, the regulation should focus on preparation. Collins pointed out that white potatoes contain vital nutrients. French fries are a problem, she acknowledged, but schools can bake potatoes.

Collins’s statement prompted Feinstein to ask if the potatoes would be topped with butter and sour cream.

“I’ll be happy to have you over for a good Maine potato with or without sour cream,” Collins replied.

Limiting the use of the potato in the schools “sends a signal not to eat” potatoes, Collins said, adding, “I don’t know what it is that (Agriculture) Secretary (Tom) Vilsack has against potatoes, but I’m going to invite him to northern Maine.”

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., noted that President Obama recently had “told us to eat our peas,” another starchy vegetable that USDA has proposed putting on the restricted list.

“Apparently Secretary Vilsack did not hear him,” Collins replied.

Agriculture Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon told Agweek that he and his staff are reviewing 132,000 comments the agency has received on the school lunch rule, including those from people who oppose the limitation on starchy vegetables.

“We are certainly mindful that potatoes are among the most commonly purchased food items for the schools,” Concannon said. “When we promulgate the rule later this year, people will see we were paying attention.”

Watershed rehabilitation

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., noted that funding for the watershed rehabilitation program was zeroed out in the bill. Moran proposed and withdrew at Kohl’s request an amendment that would take $15 million from the Natural Resources Conservation Service and use the money for maintenance of existing watershed structures.

“There are many watershed structures that need attention,” and lack of maintenance increases the chance of flooding, Moran said.

Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition said that watershed rehabilitation usually is zeroed out no matter which party is in power. Moran’s proposal to use technical assistance “is not a good offset” because NRCS would have fewer people to deliver programs, Hoefner said, but added that the committee might work out a deal with Moran using a different offset.

The National Family Farm Coalition and other groups that favor a rewrite of the USDA Packers and Stockyards rule had feared an amendment would be offered to limit USDA’s ability to rewrite that rule, and other lobbyists predicted that an amendment to overturn the ban on the slaughter of horses for human consumption, but neither was offered.

Lobbyists suggested that since Kohl said he would oppose amendments, proponents of these measures would not have wanted a negative vote on the record at the committee level, but that they could be offered if the bill comes up independently on the Senate floor.

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