Merkley, Reed Lead Push For U.S. Department of Agriculture to Provide Seafood Industry With Much Needed Support

Merkley, Reed Lead Push For U.S. Department of Agriculture to Provide Seafood Industry With Much Needed Support

The ongoing coronavirus crisis has decimated fisheries

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley and U.S. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) today requested that the Government Accountability Office conduct a study to explore ways to ensure that American fisheries receive the expanded economic support they desperately need, by increasing the volume and variety of seafood products the federal government purchases through the U.S.  Department of Agriculture’s Commodity Procurement Program (CPP).

“The seafood industry is critical to local and regional economies across the country and is largely sustained by the sale of fresh product. Notably, more than 68 percent of the $102.2 billion that consumers paid for U.S. fishery products in 2017 was spent at food service establishments. Because of the coronavirus, this market evaporated, and the supply chain for fishermen and seafood processors was decimated,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter to Comptroller General Gene Dodaro.

“Because of its established pathways for purchasing and distributing surplus food, USDA is the only federal agency capable of providing the necessary real-time assistance due to demand-side disruptions. As such, USDA has an important role to play in supporting the seafood industry, including fishermen and processors,” the lawmakers continued.

The lawmakers also highlighted that historically, USDA food purchasing contracts have been awarded to just a handful of processors in a few select states—leaving many processors, and the families who rely on them, without assistance. Among them, seafood processors have had the least access to support—as outlined in a Congressional Research Service analysis, the agency has spent over $1.2 billion on meat products, compared to just $153 million worth of a limited number of seafood products through the Section 32 program.

Merkley—who serves as the top Democrat on the Appropriations Subcommittee that funds the USDA—plans to use the results of the requested GAO study to determine how to more effectively use federal purchasing power to support the fishing and seafood industries in the future through increases in the volume and variety of seafood products purchased.

Today’s letter is part of an ongoing push by Merkley and Reed to secure more support for fisheries amid the coronavirus pandemic, which previously included a bipartisan letter signed by more than two dozen lawmakers of both parties.

The full text of the letter is available here and follows below.

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Dear Mr. Dodaro:

We write regarding the scope of food purchases conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) through the Commodity Procurement Program (CPP). The impact of the coronavirus on the seafood industry has drawn attention to the small amount and limited variety of seafood purchases conducted by USDA and the need for expanded relief for the industry.

The seafood industry is critical to local and regional economies across the country and is largely sustained by the sale of fresh product. Notably, more than 68 percent of the $102.2 billion that consumers paid for U.S. fishery products in 2017 was spent at food service establishments. Because of the coronavirus, this market evaporated, and the supply chain for fishermen and seafood processors was decimated. As a result, a bipartisan group of Senators and U.S. Representatives has taken an interest in expanding CPP to purchase additional seafood products.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) within the Department of Commerce supports the U.S. seafood industry in various ways, including by maintaining data on the industry and providing retrospective disaster relief. However, NOAA’s role in disaster assistance is limited to supply-side issues stemming from a natural or man-made disaster or the unexpected collapse of one or more fish stocks. Moreover, NOAA has no dedicated funding for such assistance.

UDSA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) purchases a variety of domestically produced and processed commodity food products under the CPP through a competitive process among approved vendors. These purchases made by AMS support American agriculture by encouraging the consumption of domestic foods. USDA delivers these food products to schools, food banks, and households across the country. Because of its established pathways for purchasing and distributing surplus food, USDA is the only federal agency capable of providing the necessary real-time assistance due to demand-side disruptions. As such, USDA has an important role to play in supporting the seafood industry, including fishermen and processors.

For example, Section 32 of the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1935 authorizes USDA to support prices of commodities in surplus by purchasing them in the marketplace. Under the Section 32 program, one of several components of CPP, AMS has historically purchased salmon, pollock, and tuna, but these purchases have been uneven across regions and product sectors and are at an insufficient total volume to support an industry as large and diverse as seafood. According to an analysis conducted by the Congressional Research Service regarding past USDA seafood purchases, USDA purchased $153 million worth of salmon, tuna, pollock, and catfish, compared to over $1.2 billion in meat products. Furthermore, these contracts were awarded to just a handful of processors in a few select states.

In light of the above, we request that GAO evaluate AMS’s food purchasing programs, addressing the following questions, with a particular focus on how USDA could increase the volume and variety of seafood products it purchases, including, but not limited to, Section 32 program and National School Lunch Program:

1)      How does AMS determine the types of seafood products it purchases for the various food programs, and what criteria does it use in making its decisions? Please include information on historic demand for seafood within the program and how USDA projects demand for seafood products over time.

2)      What factors, if any, may limit AMS’s purchases of seafood products for food programs, and what actions, if any, could AMS take to increase the amount and varieties of seafood it purchases? Please include an evaluation of AMS’s process for determining desirable product forms and the potential for the use of pilots and/or trials to introduce new seafood products.

3)      To what extent, if at all, does AMS collaborate with NOAA when making seafood purchasing decisions?

4)      What outreach does USDA conduct to industry participants and program stakeholders, particularly smaller processors, when developing its purchasing requests and what action, if any, could AMS take to improve that outreach?