Senate may revise SNAP retailer rule as part of USDA funding bill

The Senate Appropriations Committee is likely to demand more flexibility in a USDA regulation for stores to stock a greater variety of healthy foods if they want to be part of the $80 billion a year food-stamp program, said a key member.

Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, who chairs the subcommittee in charge of USDA and FDA funding, said panelists are seeking consensus on an alternative to the rule USDA proposed in February.

“It seems likely we can find common ground,” Moran said after a brief and uneventful subcommittee session on the $147.7 billion bill. He said the language probably wold be part of a so-called manager’s amendment that normally is cleared with members beforehand and approved without objection. The Appropriations Committee is to vote on the bill on Thursday.

Under USDA’s proposal, retailers would have to stock a wider and deeper variety of healthy foods than in the past — a minimum of 168 items, specified as seven varieties of foods in the four staple-food groups plus perishable items in at least four of the groups, “with a depth of stock defined as six stocking units.”

Critics say the new rule would be burdensome for small rural and inner-city stores to meet, and could prompt retailers to stop redeeming food stamps. “Tens of thousands” of stores would be disqualified, said a letter signed by one-third of the members of the House.

“We want to make sure the definition is not so inflexible it forces stores out,” said Moran. He said senators discussed alterations in the number of items that must be offered or the size of inventory that stores would have to carry.

In other news, the subcommittee included $1.5 million in its bill for the USDA to open an agricultural office in Cuba. The Obama administration requested the money as part of its process of rebuilding ties with Havana. Farm groups believe Cuba can be a ready market for U.S.-grown food.

The committee meeting on Thursday could see a proposal to block the USDA from carrying out an animal welfare regulation for livestock on organic farms, said Moran. The lightning rod is a provision requiring chicken farmers to allow birds free access to the outdoors and spelling out how large the poultry yards should be. Some large producers would have trouble meeting the requirements. The Organic Trade Association said lawmakers should allow the USDA to proceed with the rule.

Also expected was an amendment from Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski to require labeling of genetically modified salmon before it can be sold to consumers. The FDA approved a GMO salmon last year but it is not expected to be in stores for years. A similar labeling requirement was part of last year’s omnibus government spending bill.