Presidential candidates disagree about ethanol programs

In the battle for the Oval Office, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain take opposite stands on federal subsidies for ethanol, which some critics say is driving up the price of food commodities. McCain says ethanol is fine, but federal subsidies for it are not. He says he opposes ethanol’s tax breaks and protective tariff and the Republican Party platform has changed its previous stand in favor of it to now reflect the McCain view.

At President Bush’s urging, the party in 2004 supported an expanded use of ethanol and other biofuels as way to increase revenue for farmers and reduce dependence on foreign oil.

Meanwhile, Democrats remain enthusiastic about ethanol. Obama has supported the government’s role in increasing ethanol production. He also voted for the 2008 Farm Bill, which increased subsidies to farmers.

The US food industry is among the critics of the federal ethanol program, complaining that it has driven up costs and saddled consumers with higher grocery bills. The renewable energy industry defends the program and points to higher fuel costs as the main reason food commodity prices have risen sharply.

Food safety reform on radar for 2009

While the election will likely crowd the legislative calendar until the end of the year, Congress is expected to place attention on food safety issues early in 2009. The food industry has gone from resisting this attention to actively encouraging the trend. Kathy Means, an executive with the Produce Marketing Association, has called for FDA to establish commodity-specific, risk-based food safety regulations for certain fresh produce items, not just for US produce but for the increasing amount of produce imported from other countries.

“Every company throughout the fresh produce supply chain is responsible for food safety aligning with the FDA plan’s prevention element,” Means said. “Specifically, we have called on FDA to develop mandatory Good Agricultural Practices for industry use that apply to US and imported foods, are commodity-specific and risk- and science-based, and allow for regional variations.”