Written by Ellen Essman and Peggy Hall
This edition of the Ag Law Harvest has a little bit of everything—Ohio and federal legislation responding to COVID issues, new USDA guidance on bioengineered foods, and a judicial review of Bayer’s Roundup settlement. Read on to learn about the legal issues currently affecting agriculture.
Ohio COVID-19 immunity bill stalls. While the Ohio House and Senate agree with the concept of immunity for COVID-19 transmissions, the two chambers don’t yet see eye-to-eye on the parameters for COVID-19 liability protection. H.B. 606, which we reported on here, has passed both the House and Senate, but the Senate added several amendments to the legislation. The House won’t be addressing those amendments soon because it’s in recess, and doesn’t plan to return for business until at least September 15. The primary point of disagreement between the two bills concerns whether there should be a rebuttable presumption for Bureau of Workers’ Compensation coverage that certain employees who contract COVID-19 contracted it while in the workplace. The Senate amendment change by the Senate concerns exemption from immunity for "intentional conduct," changed to "intentional misconduct.” Currently, there is not a plan for the House to consider the Senate’s amendments before September 15.
Lawmakers propose bill to avoid more backlogs at processing plants.
Most people are aware that the COVID-19 pandemic created a huge backlog and supply chain problem in U.S. meatpacking plants. A group of bipartisan representatives in the House recently proposed the
Requiring Assistance to Meat Processors for Upgrading Plants Act, or RAMP-UP Act. The bill would provide grants up to $100,000 to meat and poultry processing plants so the plants could make improvements in order to avoid the kind of problems caused by the pandemic in the future. The plants would have to provide their own matching funds for the improvements. You can find the bill here.
Revisiting the Paycheck Protection Program, again. In a refreshing display of non-partisanship, Congress passed legislation in late June to extend the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Employers who haven’t taken advantage of PPP now have until August 8, 2020 to apply for PPP funds to cover payroll and certain other expenses. Several senators also introduced the Paycheck Protection Program Small Business Forgiveness Act, a proposal to streamline an automatic approval process for forgiveness of PPP loans under $150,000, but there’s been little action on the bill to date. Meanwhile, the American Farm Bureau Federation is in discussion with the Senate on its proposal for other changes to PPP that would expand access to PPP for agriculture.
More clarification for bioengineered food disclosure. You may recall that the National Bioengineered Food Law was passed by Congress in 2016. The legislation tasked USDA with creating a national mandatory standard for disclosing bioengineered foods. The standard was implemented at the beginning of 2020, but USDA still needed to publish guidance on validating a refining process and selecting an acceptable testing method. On July 8, 2020, that guidance was published. The guidance provides steps for industry to take when validating a food refining process under the rule. A lot of food refining processes remove traces of modified genetic material. So, if a refining process is validated, there is no further need to test for bioengineered material to disclose. The guidance also contains instructions on testing methods. Basically, “any regulated entity that is using a food on the AMS List of Bioengineered Foods and does not want to include a bioengineered food disclosure because the food or ingredient is highly refined and does not include detectable modified genetic material” should follow these testing instructions. Therefore, any entity with highly refined foods that do “not include detectable modified genetic material” should follow the recently published guidance.
Bayer settlement proposal under scrutiny. Last month, Bayer, the owner of Roundup, announced that it would settle around 9,500 lawsuits related to alleged injuries caused by using the product. Not only was the proposal supposed to settle previous lawsuits, but it was also meant to address any future lawsuits stemming from purported injuries caused by Roundup. A judge from the United States District Court for the Northern District of California recently pumped the breaks on this plan, stating that any settlement that would resolve “all future claims” against Roundup must first be approved by the court. A hearing will be held on July 24, where the court will decide whether or not to “grant preliminary approval of the settlement.”
Written by: Ellen Essman and Peggy Hall
October is almost over, and while farmers have thankfully been busy with harvest, we’ve been busy harvesting the world of ag law. From meat labeling to RFS rules to backyard chickens and H-2A labor certification, here’s our latest gathering of agricultural law news you may want to know:
Federal judge upholds Missouri’s meat labeling law—for now. Missouri passed a law in 2018, which among other things, prohibited representing a product as “meat” if it is not derived from livestock or poultry. As you can imagine, with the recent popularity of plant-based meat products, this law is controversial, and eventually led to a lawsuit. However, U.S. District Judge Fernando Gaitan Jr. decided not issue a preliminary injunction that would stop the Missouri Department of Agriculture from carrying out the labeling law. He reasoned that since companies like Tofurky, who brought the suit, label their products as plant-based or lab-grown, the law does not harm them. In other words, since Tofurky and other companies are not violating the law, it doesn’t make sense to stop enforcement on their account. Tofurky, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the good Food Institute have appealed Judge Gaitan’s decision, asserting that Missouri’s law infringes upon their right to free speech. This means that the Missouri law can be enforced at the moment, but the decision is not final, as more litigation is yet to come.
Oregon goes for cage-free egg law. In August, Oregon passed a new law that would require egg-laying chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, or guinea fowl to be kept in a “cage-free housing system.” This law will apply to all commercial farms with more than 3,000 laying hens. A cage-free housing system must have both indoor and outdoor areas, allow the hens to roam unrestricted, and must have enrichments such as scratch areas, perches, nest boxes and dust bathing areas. As of January 1, 2024, all eggs sold in the state of Oregon will have to follow these requirements for hens. The law does allow hens to be confined in certain situations, like for veterinary purposes or when they are part of a state or county fair exhibition.
City can ban backyard chickens, says court. The Court of Appeals for Ohio’s Seventh District upheld the city of Columbiana’s ordinances, which ban keeping chickens in a residential district, finding that they were both applicable to the appellant and constitutional. In this case, the appellant was a landowner in Columbiana who lived in an area zoned residential and kept hens in a chicken coop on his property. The appellant was eventually informed that keeping his hens was in violation of the city code. A lawsuit resulted when the landowner would not remove his chickens, and the trial court found for the city. The landowner appealed the trial court’s decision, arguing that he did not violate the city ordinances as they were written, and that the city applied the ordinances in an arbitrary and unreasonable way because his chickens did not constitute a nuisance. Although keeping chickens is not explicitly outlawed in Columbiana, the Court of Appeals for Ohio’s Seventh District found that reading the city’s zoning ordinances all together, the “prohibition on agricultural uses within residential districts can be inferred.” Furthermore, the court pointed out that the city’s code did not ban chickens in the whole city, but instead limited them to agricultural districts, and that the prohibition in residential areas was meant to ensure public health. For these reasons, the court found that the ordinances were not arbitrarily and unreasonably applied to the appellant, and as a result, the ordinances are constitutional. To read the decision in its entirety, click here.
EPA proposes controversial Renewable Fuel Standard rule. On October 15, EPA released a notice of proposed rulemaking, asking for more public comment on the proposed volumes of biofuels to be required under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) program in 2020. The RFS program “requires a certain volume of renewable fuel to replace the quantity of petroleum-based transportation fuel” and other fuels. Renewable fuels include biofuels made from crops like corn, soybeans, and sugarcane. In recent years, the demand for biofuels has dropped as the Trump administration waived required volumes for certain oil refiners. The administration promised a fix to this in early October, but many agricultural and biofuels groups feel that EPA’s October 15 proposed rule told a different story. Many of these groups are upset by the proposed blending rules, claiming that way the EPA proposes calculate the biofuel volumes would cause the volumes to fall far below what the groups were originally promised by the administration. This ultimately means the demand for biofuels would be less. On the other hand, the EPA claims that biofuels groups are misreading the rule, and that the calculation will in fact keep biofuel volumes at the level the administration originally promised. The EPA plans to hold a public hearing on October 30, followed by a comment period that ends November 29, 2019. Hopefully the hearing and comments will help to sort out the disagreement. More information is available here, and a preliminary version of the rule is available here.
New H-2A labor certification rule is in effect. The U.S. Department of Labor has finalized one of many proposed changes to the H-2A temporary agricultural labor rules. A new rule addressing labor certification for H-2A became effective on October 21, 2019. The new rule aims to modernize the labor market test for H-2A labor certification, which determines whether qualified American workers are available to fill temporary agricultural positions and if not, allows an employer to seek temporary migrant workers. An employer may advertise their H-2A job opportunities on a new version of the Department’s website, SeasonalJobs.dol.gov, now mobile-friendly, centralized and linked to third-party job-search websites. State Workforce Agencies will also promote awareness of H-2A jobs. Employers will no longer have to advertise a job in a print newspaper of general circulation in the area of intended employment. For the final rule, visit this link.
And more rules: National Organic Program rule proposals. The USDA has also made two proposals regarding organic production rules. First is a proposed rule to amend the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances for organic crops and handling. The rule would allow blood meal made with sodium citrate to be used as a soil amendment, prohibit the use of natamycin in organic crops, and allow tamarind seed gum to be used as a non-organic ingredient in organic handling if an organic form is not commercially available. That comment period closes on December 17, 2019. Also up for consideration is USDA’s request to extend the National Organic Program’s information collection reporting and recordkeeping requirements, which are due to expire on January 31, 2020. The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service specifically invites comments by December 16, 2019 on: (1) whether the proposed collection of information is necessary for the proper performance of the functions of the agency, including whether the information will have practical utility; (2) the accuracy of the agency's estimate of the burden of the proposed collection of information including the validity of the methodology and assumptions used; (3) ways to enhance the quality, utility, and clarity of the information to be collected; and (4) ways to minimize the burden of the collection of information on those who are to respond, including the use of appropriate automated, electronic, mechanical, or other technological collection techniques or other forms of information technology.
Great Lakes restoration gets a boost from EPA. On October 22, 2019, the EPA announced a new action plan under the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI). The plan will be carried out by federal agencies and their partners through fiscal year 2024. Past GLRI action plans have removed environmental impairments on the lakes and prevented one million pounds of phosphorus from finding its way into the lakes. The plans are carried out by awarding federal grant money to state and local groups throughout the Great Lakes, who use the money to carry out lake and habitat restoration projects. Overall, the new plan’s goals are to remove toxic substances from the lakes, improve and delist Areas of Concern in the lakes, control invasive species and prevent new invasive species from entering the lakes, reduce nutrients running off from agriculture and stormwater, protect and restore habitats, and to provide education about the Great Lakes ecosystem. You can read EPA’s news release on the new plan here, and see the actual plan here. We plan to take a closer look at the plan and determine what it means for Ohio agriculture, so watch for future updates!