- As previously reported on this blog, legislation requiring labeling of genetically modified (GM) foods and food ingredients was signed into law on July 29, 2016. This law directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop regulations and standards to create mandatory disclosure requirements for bio-engineered foods by July 2018. On June 28, 2017, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) posted a list of 30 questions to obtain stakeholder input to facilitate the drafting of mandatory disclosure requirements to implement the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law. One of those questions is:
- “Will AMS require disclosure for food that contains highly refined products, such as oils or sugars derived from bioengineered crops?”
- USDA has not yet posted the comments it has received, which were due by August 25, 2017; however, several organizations have posted the comments they submitted in response to the questions. Among the organizations supporting disclosure were the Grocery Manufacturers Assn. (GMA), the International Dairy Foods Assn. (IDFA)and the Consumers Union. Noting that excluding highly refined ingredients (HRI) from the scope of the mandatory disclosure standard would result in roughly 80% fewer products being subject to the disclosure requirements under the federal law, GMA wrote, “A clear, simple, and consistent mandatory disclosure standard that includes HRI will assist manufacturers in educating consumers about biotechnology as a safe and beneficial method of plant breeding.”
- In contrast, the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF) and The Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) are opposed to mandatory disclosure of HRI. ITIF suggested that some refined products do not contain residual DNA sequences and that “[t]here are not analytical methods that would allow such products to be identified as coming from ‘GM’ plants or animals vs. others.”
- While USDA develops mandatory disclosure requirements for bio-engineered foods, a number of class action laws suit have been filed suggesting that products containing GM ingredients are falsely labeled as natural. For example, last week, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a bid by Conagra Brands Inc. to avoid a class-action lawsuit concerning cooking oil labeled 100% natural that contains GM ingredients (see S. News). And earlier this month, Frito-Lay North America agreed to not make any non-GMO claims on certain products “unless the claim is certified by an independent third-party certification organization”(see Food Navigator).
- We will continue to monitor developments on the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard and report them to you here.
On September 14, 2017, Pacific Architects & Engineers Incorporated (PAE) settled a whistleblower lawsuit alleging the company did not follow proper vetting procedures for its personnel that performed and billed work to the U.S. State Department. The $5 million settlement resolves allegations without any determination of liability of contract violations.
PAE is a company originally incorporated in California in 1955. The company first served the rebuilding of Japan after WWII and has since grown to participate in projects and government contracts globally. In 2007, already a contractor with the U.S. State Department, PAE was assigned the task of training U.S. personnel in Afghanistan and conducting extensive background checks and documentation for those in high-risk positions. Reporting the names, nationalities and background information on contract employees in these positions was a requirement of the contract for work between PAE and the U.S. government.
After its investigation, the U.S. Justice Department alleged that “PAE was aware of these contractual requirements but did not comply with them for extended periods.”
Robert Palombo, the former PAE manager, filed this whistleblower lawsuit against his employer alleging that this was the case and that PAE continued billing for work done under the contract.
PAE, however, contends that “The invoices specifically identified the names of employees for whom the lawsuit alleges that requisite notice was not made. The employees whose background investigations were allegedly inadequate were not involved in any security incidents or injuries. The services called for under the contract were provided in full.”
Without admitting fault or liability, PAE has decided to settle these allegations of improper vetting by paying the U.S. government $5 million, $875,000 of which whistleblower Robert Palumbo is entitled to receive.
For more legal analysis go to The National Law Review
President Trump recently signed the “Securing our Agriculture and Food Act” (H.R. 1238). The bill amends the Homeland Security Act of 2002 to direct the Assistant Secretary for Health Affairs for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to carry out a program to coordinate DHS efforts related to defending the food, agriculture and veterinary systems of the United States against terrorism and other high-consequence events that pose a high risk to homeland security.
According to Michigan Farm News, the law will:
- Provide oversight and management of DHS’s responsibilities pursuant to Homeland Security Presidential Directive 9 – Defense of United States Agriculture and Food;
- Provide oversight and integration of DHS activities related to veterinary public health, food defense and agricultural security;
- Lead DHS policy initiatives related to food, animal and agricultural incidents and to overall domestic preparedness for, and collective response to, agricultural terrorism;
- Coordinate with other DHS components on activities related to food and agriculture security and screening procedures for domestic and imported products; and
- Coordinate with appropriate federal departments and agencies.
On August 20, trade officials from the United States, Mexico, and Canada concluded the first round of negotiations to modernize the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In a joint statement released following five days of talks, trade officials reiterated their commitment to updating the deal, continuing domestic consultations, and working on draft text. They also pledged their commitment to a comprehensive and accelerated negotiation process to set 21st Century standards and to benefit the citizens of North America.
Their agenda covered a wide range of existing and new NAFTA chapters, including: updating the Rules of Origin, adding and amending trade remedies provisions, addressing transparency, combatting corruption, increasing intellectual property protections, and addressing issues facing financial services and investment. The U.S. reportedly tabled roughly 10 proposals updating existing chapters or proposing new ones. Officials expect the modernized NAFTA deal will include a total of 30 chapters (the current agreement is comprised of 22 chapters and seven annexes).
The NAFTA negotiating teams are being led by Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for the Western Hemisphere John Melle, veteran Canadian trade expert Steve Verheul, and Director of the Embassy of Mexico’s Trade and NAFTA Office Kenneth Smith Ramos. In addition to negotiators, a number of Canadian and Mexican stakeholders – including eight members of the Mexican Senate and 150 representatives of Mexico’s private sector – were present on the margins of the talks. However, U.S. negotiators have acknowledged that their accelerated schedule leaves little time for formal business stakeholders to be included in events like those organized during the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks.
Negotiators are expected to head to Mexico City for the second round of talks from September 1 to 5, and to Canada for their third round in late September (reportedly September 23-27). Negotiators will continue at this rapid pace, moving back to United States in October and planning additional rounds through the end of the year. The NAFTA parties hope to finish talks by the end of 2017 or early 2018, ahead of Mexico’s July 2018 presidential elections.
Earlier this week, New York became the third major city in the United States to enact “fair workweek” laws aimed at protecting fast food and retail employees from scheduling practices that are perceived by the employees to be unfair and burdensome. Following the lead set by San Francisco and Seattle, New York has adopted a series of new laws aimed at enhancing the work life of fast-food and retail employees. By eliminating certain scheduling practices commonly used by fast food and retail employers, the New York Legislature seeks to protect these employees from unpredictable work schedules and fluctuating income that render it difficult for them to create budgets, schedule child or elder care, pursue further education, or obtain additional employment. These new laws include the following provisions:
- Fast food employers must now publish work schedules 14 days in advance;
- If fast food employers make any changes to an employee’s schedule with less than 14 days’ notice, the employer must pay the employee, in addition to the employee’s normal compensation, a bonus payment ranging from $10 to $75 depending on the amount of notice provided of the change;
- Before hiring new employees, fast food employers must first offer any available work shifts to current employees, thereby enabling part-time employees desiring more work hours the opportunity to increase their hours worked and, accordingly, their income, before the employer hires additional part-time employees;
- Fast food employers may no longer schedule an employee to work back-to-back shifts that close the restaurant one day and open it the next day if there are less than 11 hours in between the two shifts. However, if an employee consents in writing to work such “clopening” shifts, the fast food employer must pay the employee an additional $100;
- Fast food employees may ask their employers to deduct a portion of their salary and donate it directly to a nonprofit organization of their choice (This provision is a victory for unions as fast food employees can now earmark money to a group that fights for their rights, and the employer has to pay it on their behalf); and
- Bans all retail employers from utilizing “on-call” scheduling that requires employees to be available to work and to contact the employer to determine if they are needed at work.
Proposed changes to National Credit Union Administration’s rule on federal credit union (FCU) ownership of real estate and to the Massachusetts credit union parity rules, promise to open new areas of credit union investment in real estate as an ancillary business line. Assuming both proposed rule changes take effect this summer, FCUs and MA state charters will have the ability to buy, develop, own and sell commercial real estate, provided that the FCU eventually (within six years of purchase or such longer period as NCUA may allow) occupies at least half of each property. The remaining space in each property may be leased by the FCU to unaffiliated tenants or to a developer entity, for re-leasing to third parties. In calculating how much of a property a specific CU occupies, space occupied by a CUSO that is controlled – through voting rights, without necessarily majority economic ownership – by the CU may be included.
Combined with last year’s NCUA action which eliminated the 5% cap on fixed asset ownership by non-RegFlex FCUs, NCUA is now about to allow FCUs to acquire commercial properties they can never fully utilize, by treating up to half the property for investment/rental purposes. This will allow FCUs to consider ownership of small strip malls and other income-producing properties which were previously off-limits, and could signal a shift away from leasing and toward ownership as FCUs site their branches and operations centers.
The financial benefit from this major regulatory change can be enhanced if FCUs are able to create CUSO-based joint ventures with private real estate capital sources to reduce the portion of the equity investment required from the credit union. Further regulatory guidance on this potential aspect of FCU real estate investment is needed, but insofar as all FCUs and many state CUs (soon to include Massachusetts, through the currently proposed amendments to its CU parity rules, to allow state chartered Massachusetts CUs to partner with non-credit union co-owners of CUSOs, just as FCUs have been able to do for more than a decade) can through CUSOs partner with non-credit union co-owners/capital sources, it is possible that through a CUSO credit unions may acquire commercial property partly for use and partly for investment/rental, and raise at least a portion of the acquisition’s equity capital from non-CU third party equity sources. Of particular interest is the ability of CU executives to share ownership of CU real estate as partners in a CU-led CUSO, an arrangement that would allow select individuals to co-invest privately in these new real estate ventures. Completing the financing picture could be a commercial first mortgage loan from the sponsor credit union to the CUSO, perhaps with customary limited guaranties from some of the non-CU co-investors in the CUSO.
While this action by NCUA is a welcome step toward more rational, flexible facility ownership and management practices for affected credit unions, and offers those institutions a new ancillary revenue source, NCUA is clear that its action does not allow real estate speculation or full-scale CRE investment by credit unions. All acquired properties must eventually, typically within six years, be at least 50% devoted to housing the CU-owner and/or any CUSO controlled by it.
Whatever deal structures ultimately emerge, NCUA is about to open the door to limited but meaningful credit union equity investment in the kind of commercial real estate deals that previously CUs could finance only on the debt side. And with Massachusetts about to allow state charters to partner with non-credit union co-investors through CUSOs, we can expect to see both federal and state charters here explore equity co-investment opportunities with more traditional real estate investors and developers, and possibly even individual CU executives, as CUs move into this newest investment arena.
In February, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheelerwill circulate a draft order regarding Net Neutrality to his four fellow commissioners. The Net Neutrality rules will govern whether Internet service providers (ISPs), such as Comcast or Verizon, can block access to websites or give preferential treatment to traffic from websites that pay for such treatment. To sustain the rules, the commission may change the regulatory classification of broadband service, subjecting it to rules, known as Title II, that apply to traditional phone service, rather than the less restrictive Title I rules that currently cover broadband. 47 U.S.C. §§ 153–621.
This will be the FCC’s third attempt at imposing Net Neutrality obligations. The U. S. Circuit Court reversed the commission’s first two attempts, finding that the rules were inconsistent with the classification of broadband as a Title I service. Comcast Corp. v. FCC, 600 F.3d 642 (D.C. Cir. 2010); Verizon v. FCC, 740 F.3d 623 (D.C. Cir. 2014). In the most recent opinion, the court struck down two rules, one prohibiting ISPs from blocking access to websites and one prohibiting them from unreasonably discriminating against traffic from websites or applications.
In response, the FCC published a proposal to reinstate the rules with small changes to address the Court’s concerns. The proposal was roundly criticized by Net Neutrality proponents, because it did not flatly outlaw discrimination. President Obama weighed in with a statement in favor of Net Neutrality rules. Recently, Chairman Wheeler has strongly indicated that the new proposal will reclassify broadband as a Title II service and include a rule banning unreasonable discrimination. The Chairman plans to circulate a draft order to the other commissioners, giving them a chance to comment on the draft and vote on the proposal at the FCC’s open meeting on February 26.
The effect of the rules is uncertain. Rules banning discrimination have been in place for only three of the 12 years since Net Neutrality was first proposed. Even though discrimination was allowed for more than nine years of that time, ISPs have not been able to convince content providers to pay for priority treatment. The new rules may outlaw activities that the ISPs do not have the market power to engage in anyway. But the rules will give content providers comfort that the ISPs will not be able to charge them for priority service in the future.
The bigger (and more uncertain) impact will arise if the FCC reclassifies broadband as a Title II service. If this happens, the Commission will probably forbear from applying most sections of Title II to broadband. But the FCC’s authority to forbear from applying the statute in these circumstances is uncertain. Such a decision will be challenged on each section of Title II and the myriad of regulations under it. Litigation will last for years. If the FCC’s decision to forbear is reversed, the ISPs may be subject to some very onerous Title II regulations, such as obligations to resell their services, obligations to sell out of tariffs, and price restrictions. The outcome could be a messy hodge-podge of regulations that apply to some services and providers but not others.