WASHINGTON -- The principal food industry associations have already chalked up one major lobbying victory this year, the repeal of ergonomics standards issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the waning months of the Clinton administration.
Now, industry associations are turning their attentions to a range of other issues, which include repealing the estate tax, extending Medicare benefits to include prescription drugs, opposing a minimum wage increase and pushing to uniform food labeling standards.
SN recently spoke with the heads of the major national organizations and discussed these key areas of concern for the remainder of 2001.
ENDING THE ESTATE TAX
Industry associations have long lobbied for the repeal of the estate tax, which they frequently refer to as the "death tax." Their efforts led to the passage in early April of a House bill that calls for the abolition of the tax by 2010. In the next few months, the bill is expected to arrive before the Senate, where the industry's lobbying campaign is now focused.
Tom Zaucha, president and chief executive officer, National Grocers Association, Reston, Va., said, "The Senate must act now to preserve the future of privately owned and operated businesses. Our theme is -- and will continue to be -- 'End, not amend, the death tax."'
Zaucha told SN small-supermarket operators could have the most to lose if estate tax repeal does not occur. He said developing businesses usually do not have the cash to pay the tax when the owner dies.
"Recapitalization can mean the difference between some private businesses living or dying," he said.
Commented John Block, president and CEO, Food Distributors International, Falls Church, Va., "The damage done to businesses that are forced to close to pay the tax far outweighs the small gain in tax revenues, especially in times of budget surpluses.
"We ask members of the Senate to hold the line, and vote with the House and long-standing American public opinion on this issue."
Tim Hammonds, president and CEO, Food Marketing Institute, Washington, said, "It's time to put this insanely complicated and destructive tax to rest.
"The fact that the House has now voted three times to repeal the tax -- and by substantial bipartisan margins -- sends a message that this issue transcends politics and this tax should be abolished as soon as possible.
"The only question is how quickly we can eliminate this tax. The House bill would do it in 10 years. We urge the Senate to kill it much faster. Family businesses need relief now from the costly insurance premiums and tax-planning fees that are as much a burden as the tax itself."
TAKING CARE OF HEALTH CARE REFORM
A variety of health care issues have surfaced as another key area of industry focus.
"It has been a hot topic this year, and will continue to be a chief concern," said Hammonds.
Probably the most visible health issue is one that surfaced dramatically during last year's presidential campaign: the extension of prescription drug benefits to seniors. Industry associations have been part of the effort pushing for the added benefits.
At the same time, they want to ensure that seniors will be able to fill their prescriptions at their local supermarket pharmacy or drug store. What they are concerned about is the possibility the government would require seniors to order drugs by mail from a central source.
This concern has led the major associations to agree on five basic principles regarding prescription reform:
Seniors should have access to the community pharmacy of their choice.
Community pharmacies should be provided adequate compensation for the costs of dispensing medication to seniors.
Seniors should have access to meaningful medication therapy management services from community pharmacies, and pharmacists should be provided additional reimbursement for providing these value-added services.
Seniors should not be economically coerced into using other prescription drug delivery mechanisms, such as mail order.
A drug benefit for seniors should include reforms to minimize the time pharmacists spend on administrative activities. This can be achieved by adopting a uniform prescription drug benefit card.
"All competitors offering prescription drugs should have access and pricing equality," Zaucha told SN.
"We believe seniors should be able to buy their food and drugs at the same place, and they should be affordable," Hammonds said.
All executives agreed that much needs to be done, and that grassroots and other efforts to send the message of reform to Washington need to be kept up in order to facilitate change.
Another important health care concern involves the benefit packages of those still working. The industry wants to maintain the uniform federal law on employee pensions, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).
"The question remains: What do we need to do to improve health care in this country? That goal is not met by increasing litigation. With ERISA repeal, we would be dealing with the symptoms, not the disease," Zaucha said.
"The food distribution industry wants to continue providing affordable health insurance to our employees and their families. ERISA preemption has allowed us to do that. Having to comply with a patchwork of different state and local laws, and being held liable under each of those laws, would be extremely difficult and cost-prohibitive," Block said.
All the executives noted that modifying the ERISA preemption would raise employers' health care costs, and might also lead some businesses to discontinue offering health benefits to employees.
BLOCKING A RAISE IN THE MINIMUM WAGE
Congress has begun considering whether to increase the federal minimum wage this year, which all the executives strongly oppose.
Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. David Bonior (D-Mich.) have introduced bills that would increase the the minimum wage by $1.50 over two years.
"To suggest a salary standard for the whole country may artificially undermine what wages should be," Zaucha said ". A minimum wage increase has no relevance to what wages are in the real world."
Again, all the executives polled were in agreement that a minimum wage increasewould produce a rippling effect, driving wages up at all levels.
They also agreed that an increase would hurt customer service at supermarkets, since many stores would cut staff or shorten work hours to deal with the added costs.
"There will be a move on this issue in Congress this year," Hammonds said, "but fortunately at this time neither side knows what it wants to do."
DEVELOPING UNIFORM LABELING
Some in the retail food industry would also like to see Congress create uniform food labeling standards.
"We need to eliminate this inefficient patchwork of varying state laws regarding packaging. We should have one label for one America," said C. Manly Molpus, president and CEO, Grocery Manufacturers Association, Washington. "Also, we will be looking at any possible legislation that deals with the issue of mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods.
"The Food and Drug Administration already has a policy on GMOs based on scientific evidence, and that policy should stand."
In addition, the grocery manufacturers are closely monitoring the new administration's agricultural policy. Ann Veneman, the new agriculture secretary, has already hinted at the possibility of a new farm bill.
"Farm policy will affect the supply, availability and price of our raw materials," said Molpus. "We have been urged by the new secretary of agriculture to try to work together with all of the elements in the food production system and to help play a role in shaping our new farm policy."