The Senate Agriculture Committee Thursday approved grain-quality legislation after making several changes sought by the grain industry to soften the measure.
However, industry officials said they are still skeptical of the need for the package, which is intended to increase the competitiveness of U.S. grain. The bill's sponsors contend that the United States is losing export market sales because of the low quality of its grain products.But industry officials insist that current grain standards actually favor export sales because the United States can offer customers a variety of grades, at corresponding prices.
The changes approved Thursday address some of the industry's concerns that an insistence on higher quality grain exports could price the United States out of many markets, especially those poorer countries which traditionally seek lower, and less expensive, grades of grains.
Also the changes ease concerns that farmers would not be able to sell their lower-quality grain, because the previous package gave the Federal Grain Inspection Service authority to prohibit the blending of low- and high-quality grain.
The new version would allow that practice to continue, but give the FGIS greater authority to prohibit blending of contaminated and otherwise ''unmerchantable grain."
Blending low- and high-quality grain is a common industry practice, which industry officials say is necessary to meet individual buyer specifications.
The new measure softens the old bill's cleanliness requirements, which insisted that high-quality U.S. grain exports meet the standard of competitors. Instead, the FGIS may set new cleanliness standards for Grade 3 and better U.S. grain, but the agency must consider technical constraints of the industry and competitor practices.
Also, the new language requires the service to assure that any change in cleanliness standards would improve, or at least not worsen, U.S. farmer income and grain export market share.
Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., one of the bill's authors, said the new grain-quality package backed away from some of the "more advanced proposals" that could have provedburdensome to operators of country grain elevators and export terminals.
But Sen. Bond said the bill maintains its emphasis on providing U.S. customers more information on the end-use characteristics of their grain purchases.
Matt Brockman, director of legislative affairs for the National Grain and Feed Association, said the changes made the proposal "somewhat more palatable" to the industry.
But the NGFA still could not support the legislation, despite its less- troublesome blending and cleanliness sections, and would continue to press Congress to maintain the more flexible current grading system, Mr. Brockman said.
In addition to softening some measures of the original bill, other features were completely dropped, including requirements that:
* Grain quality criteria be incorporated into the export bonus program.
* Elevators keep records on the different varieties of grain they have in storage.
* Crop insurance be offered to farmers to guard against losses due to poor crop quality.
* Disaster assistance be given to farmers with severe crop quality losses.
However, the senators approved a provisions that would require the Commodity Credit Corp. to take cleanliness factors into consideration when determining commodity loan program premiums and discounts.
Also, the bill would require the USDA to establish and maintain quality standards for the farmer-owned reserve.