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What's in store for '84?

Grocers will find few burning issues in food legislation and regulation in 1984.

There are smoldering concerns, chiefly holdover bills from the first session of the deficit-dazed 98th Congress. Law-makers, regulators, industry associations and consumer groups plan to add a few fresh coals to these issues, including: tax initiatives, new farm policy proposals and food stamp amendments.

However, as election time nears, things could get hotter.

"If there's a single communication priority in 1984, it's reminding people of the reasons for food price inflation," says Karen Brown, vice president of communications, Food Marketing Institute (FMI). "They will have forgotten about the heavy rains last spring or the drought last summer. One of FMI's top priorities will be to monitor food prices and put together information that our members can use to explain this. Being an election year, there will be more questions from politicians, not just from shoppers."

After basking in the glow of a 1% to 2% food inflation rate in 1983, the Reagan administration is bracing itself for the forecasted 4% to 7% jump in grocery prices. More public education programs are in the works, including one to improve the nutrition and shopping information available to low-income customers, says John Bode, deputy assistant secretary of Food and Consumer Services for USDA. "However, food assistance programs, such as food stamps, are all indexed, so benefits will increase with inflation," he explains.

Though USDA's '84 agenda is not yet complete, the department's priorities can safely be summarized as farm programs and food stamps. Much effort will go into "simplifying and shortening" the present food stamp regulations, says Bode.

The "real thrust" of USDA's efforts on food stamps in '84 will be toward holding states responsible for the cost of program errors, Bode says.

Last month the USDA told FMI and the National Grocers Association (NGA) that it would not propose rules prohibiting banks from charging fees for redeeming food stamps.

As a result, eliminating bank charges for food stamp redemption will be one of the industry's first legislative priorities, says Thomas Wenning, executive vice president and general counsel of NGA. NGA will also be lobbying against a measure introduced last year by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) that would require retailers to countersign food stamp coupons.

Other holdover proposals of concern to grocers deal with immigration law reform. The Senate has already approved a bill requiring employers to verify that workers are not illegal immigrants and imposing burdensome recordkeeping requirements.

"House speaker Tip O'Neill put the bill on hold last year, but some Republicans are making efforts to bring it to the floor for a vote," says Wenning. "Grocers support voluntary efforts in this area, but we oppose sanctions on employers who hire illegal aliens."

However, these problems will be secondary to the tax reform proposals expected this session.

"The question is whether they'll try to decrease the deficit by increasing taxes," Wenning says. "While such an approach is unlikely in an election year, (Kansas Sen. Robert) Dole is still pushing for an increased taxes amendment, and you're likely to see a number of tax riders on other bills."

"We're going to put continued pressure on Congress to develop new revenue sources," agrees FMI's Brown. "Anything that looks like a corporate surtax will be scrutinized."

FMI's legislative priority list includes familiar entries, such as transportation issues, the multi-employer pension plan and the beer territorial franchising bill. Whether any of these makes headway depends on time and the election year tradewinds, Brown says.

Will there be any surprises? "If food prices do rise, consumers may pay attention to operating aspects that they'd otherwise ignore, such as implementation of scanning systems and price marking," she says. "We see these as continuous concerns, not issues that have been dealt with and finished."

As yet, such thoughts are not in consumers' minds. Ellen Haas, director of Public Voice for Food and Nutrition Policy, says that consumerists will focus their efforts on not just preserving, but strengthening food safety laws. "Our goal is to ensure a safe, nutritious and affordable food supply," she says.

The Farm Bill--up for renewal in 1985--looms large here. "We must find alternatives to the current farm programs. We need to lower support prices. Paying farmers not to produce has added significantly to food prices. Our fight against the 1983 dairy support bill was just the start."

On a less ambitious note, the group is working on legislation for mandatory fish inspection.

Food safety reform remains "a high priority" with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the Senate Human Resources panel. However, notes aide Steve Grossman, "The committee will have a heavy legislative agenda, especially dealing with the health block grant."

Congress may well table food safety reform pending clearer signals from the public on what direction to take. A survey planned by FMI and Lou Harris pollsters may give some guidance. "'Food safety' keeps coming up in polls, but consumers seem confused about safety and nutrition issues," says FMI's Brown.

Some anticipate that it will be business as usual in 1984. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) "will be doing what we have been doing--monitoring markets to make sure competition continues," says spokesman Neal Friedman.

However, NGA hopes the FTC can be pushed into a more visible police role. "We will continue to press for more consistent and effective enforcement of the antitrust laws," says Wenning. "A number of congressional members have criticized the FTC's enforcement philosophy."
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Title Annotation:Congress
Author:Densford, Lynn E.
Publication:Progressive Grocer
Article Type:column
Date:Jan 1, 1984
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