US food industry groups are hoping that last month’s repeal of the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) ergonomics rule represents just the beginning of the new Bush administration’s industry-friendly regulation policy.

Groups representing meat, snack food and grocery manufacturers praised the decision, claiming the rule would have been prohibitively expensive and unworkable.

“The repeal of this rule staved off the very real possibility of entire operations being forced to shut down, which would have resulted in thousands of lost jobs,” said C. Manly Molpus, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA).

“OSHA’s ergonomic standard would have imposed enormous costs on businesses with no real benefit and punished our industry, which has led the way in improving workplace safety,” said American Meat Institute (AMI) president J. Patrick Boyle in a statement.

The bill could have forced employers to redesign workplaces and compensate workers for Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSD) injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome and back sprains resulting from repetitive motion or strenuous lifting. Those who supported the rule said it would have prevented 500,000 injuries a year.

“We are impressed with the Bush administration,” Sue Ferenc, vice president of regulation policy for the GMA, was quoted as saying.

Other regulatory news

In response to Europe’s food-and-mouth disease (FMD) crisis, the US department of agriculture (USDA) has outlined the precautions it is taking to keep FMD out of the US. They include: prohibiting shipments of products from high-risk countries; increasing personnel and surveillance at ports of entry; tightening regulatory enforcement; strengthening federal, state, and industry coordination; accelerating research; implementing education campaigns; and dispatching experts to Great Britain to assist containment efforts. In addition, the agency will increase inspection, cleaning, and disinfecting of used farm equipment entering the US from countries or regions under FMD import restrictions.

In late March, USDA secretary Ann Veneman met with European Union Commissioner David Byrne to discuss a range of issues, including FMD, the temporary prohibition of certain products from the EU, trade and biotechnology.

Regarding current restrictions, Veneman said, “We will continue reviewing our policies but remain concerned about the spread of FMD within the EU and the risk of introduction into the United States. Given the current situation, we are not prepared to lift any restrictions at this time.”

Concerning its proposal to reduce water pollution from large animal feedlot operations, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced that it has extended the comment period to 75 days. The decision was based on comments the agency received asking for more time to study the proposal.

Pollution to waterways from large animal operations was at the center of the lawsuits brought against US hog producer Smithfield Foods in February by a coalition of 35 groups representing farmers, environmentalists, ranchers and animal rights organizations.

In March, a North Carolina state judge dismissed the lawsuits, saying the group failed to make its case. The coalition said it would appeal.

The EPA has also announced that it is reviewing a scientific report that will determine crop safety of genetically modified corn, cotton, and potato. The study will either confirm or deny the EPA’s initial assessment that the crops are safe to humans and environment. Rescinding approval is thought to be unlikely. The EPA is expected to renew conditional approval for one to five years. A stamp of approval, hoped for by the biotech industry, would do much to restore public confidence after the recent StarLink debacle.

According to a recent report submitted by the US General Accounting Office (GAO), the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the Food and Drug Association (FDA) and state agriculture and health departments expended about US$1.3bn in fiscal year 1999, US$1bn and US$300m proportionally. The amounts and proportions of food safety expenditures for fiscal year 1998 were similar.

Republican Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas last month introduced a bill that would permanently grant the President Trade Promotion Authority. Groups such as the GMA have argued that Trade Promotion Authority, formerly known as fast track, would benefit the US food industry and allow the administration to enter trade negotiations in good faith. Trade Promotion Authority was allowed to lapse in 1994.

More Bush Appointments

President Bush’s 31-member USDA Transition Advisory Team now includes 11 food industry leaders, representing the interests of soybean, rice, chicken, beef, pork and fruit and vegetable producers. The team also includes two former USDA secretaries, John Block, current president of Food Distributors International, and Clayton Yeutter. Tim Hammonds, president and chief executive officer of the Food Marketing Institute, is also on board.

It is expected that these top industry leaders will be influential in determining upcoming agency appointments, including the head the FDA and USDA’s Undersecretary for Food Safety.

Check back next month for updates and new developments.

By Pam Ahlberg

Pam can be reached by email at: