Trump administration rolls back U.S. inspection rules for egg products

By Tom Polansek

CHICAGO (Reuters) – The Trump administration said on Wednesday it will stop requiring U.S. plants that produce egg products to have full-time government inspectors, in the first update of inspection methods in 50 years.

Under a new rule that takes effect immediately, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will allow companies like Cargill Inc and Sonstegard Foods to use different food-safety systems and procedures designed for their factories and equipment.

The change marks the Trump administration’s latest move to ease government regulations over the nation’s food system. Some inspectors and public-interest groups have warned food safety may suffer as a result.

The new rule affects 83 plants that USDA has been inspecting, according to the agency. USDA will also assume oversight from the Food and Drug Administration of additional facilities that produce egg substitutes.

Inspectors will visit plants once per shift, instead of being there whenever egg products are being processed.

The change, first proposed in 2018, makes inspections consistent with those for meat and poultry products, said Paul Kiecker, administrator of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. Inspectors will operate under a “patrol” system, in which they will cover multiple plants each day, he said.

“We feel very confident that, based on the once per shift that we have them there, we’ll still be able to verify that they’re producing safe product,” he said.

Environmental group Food & Water Watch said in 2018 the patrol system may make inspections less effective.

The new rule aims to make better use of inspectors and allow companies to develop new food-safety procedures, Kiecker said.

Companies must implement standard operating procedures for sanitation and food-safety management systems known as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points.

“We are giving them more of the responsibility to ensure that they are producing safe products,” Kiecker said.

The coronavirus pandemic disrupted egg product sales this spring, as closures of restaurants, schools and offices reduced demand.

(Reporting by Tom Polansek; Editing by Tom Brown)

Venezuela citizens scramble to survive as merchants demand dollars

Bolivar notes a seen hanging in a tree at a street in Maracaibo, Venezuela November 11, 2017.

By Eyanir Chinea and Maria Ramirez

CARACAS/CIUDAD GUAYANA, Venezuela (Reuters) – There was no way Jose Ramon Garcia, a food transporter in Venezuela, could afford new tires for his van at $350 each.

Whether he opted to pay in U.S. currency or in the devalued local bolivar currency at the equivalent black market price, Garcia would have had to save up for years.

Though used to expensive repairs, this one was too much and put him out of business. “Repairs cost an arm and a leg in Venezuela,” said the now-unemployed 42-year-old Garcia, who has a wife and two children to support in the southern city of Guayana.

“There’s no point keeping bolivars.”

For a decade and a half, strict exchange controls have severely limited access to dollars. A black market in hard currency has spread in response, and as once-sky-high oil revenue runs dry, Venezuela’s economy is in free-fall.

The practice adopted by gourmet and design stores in Caracas over the last couple of years to charge in dollars to a select group of expatriates or Venezuelans with access to greenbacks is fast spreading.

Food sellers, dental and medical clinics, and others are starting to charge in dollars or their black market equivalent – putting many basic goods and services out of reach for a large number of Venezuelans.

According to the opposition-led National Assembly, November’s rise in prices topped academics’ traditional benchmark for hyperinflation of more than 50 percent a month – and could end the year at 2,000 percent. The government has not published inflation data for more than a year.

“I can’t think in bolivars anymore, because you have to give a different price every hour,” said Yoselin Aguirre, 27, who makes and sells jewelry in the Paraguana peninsula and has recently pegged prices to the dollar. “To survive, you have to dollarize.”

The socialist government of the late president Hugo Chavez in 2003 brought in the strict controls in order to curb capital flight, as the wealthy sought to move money out of Venezuela after a coup attempt and major oil strike the previous year.

Oil revenue was initially able to bolster artificial exchange rates, though the black market grew and now is becoming unmanageable for the government.

TRIM THE TREE WITH BOLIVARS

President Nicolas Maduro has maintained his predecessor’s policies on capital controls. Yet, the spread between the strongest official rate, of some 10 bolivars per dollar, and the black market rate, of around 110,000 per dollar, is now huge.

While sellers see a shift to hard currency as necessary, buyers sometimes blame them for speculating.

Rafael Vetencourt, 55, a steel worker in Ciudad Guayana, needed a prostate operation priced at $250.

“We don’t earn in dollars. It’s abusive to charge in dollars!” said Vetencourt, who had to decimate his savings to pay for the surgery.

In just one year, Venezuela’s currency has weakened 97.5 per cent against the greenback, meaning $1,000 of local currency purchased then would be worth just $25 now.

Maduro blames black market rate-publishing websites such as DolarToday for inflating the numbers, part of an “economic war” he says is designed by the opposition and Washington to topple him.

On Venezuela’s borders with Brazil and Colombia, the prices of imported oil, eggs and wheat flour vary daily in line with the black market price for bolivars.

In an upscale Caracas market, cheese-filled arepas, the traditional breakfast made with corn flour, increased 65 percent in price in just two weeks, according to tracking by Reuters reporters. In the same period, a kilogram of ham jumped a whopping 171 percent.

The runaway prices have dampened Christmas celebrations, which this season were characterized by shortages of pine trees and toys, as well as meat, chicken and cornmeal for the preparation of typical dishes.

In one grim festive joke, a Christmas tree in Maracaibo, the country’s oil capital and second city, was decorated with virtually worthless low-denomination bolivar bills.

Most Venezuelans, earning just $5 a month at the black market rate, are nowhere near being able to save hard currency.

“How do I do it? I earn in bolivars and have no way to buy foreign currency,” said Cristina Centeno, a 31-year-old teacher who, like many, was seeking remote work online before Christmas in order to bring in some hard currency.

(Additional reporting by Andreina Aponte and Leon Wietfeld in Caracas, Mircely Guanipa in Maracay, Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal, Lenin Danieri in Maracaibo; Writing by Girish Gupta; Editing by Leslie Adler)

Texas Stores Limit Egg Sales

A chain of grocery stores in Texas is telling their customers they can only purchase a limited amount of eggs because of the bird flu impacting the nation’s egg supply.

H-E-B stores has posted signs saying that customers are limited to three cartons of eggs.  There is no limit on the size of the cartons, just the number of cartons.

The restriction is also in place at H-E-B’s affiliated Central Market stores.

“The avian flu this year has impacted a significant portion of the egg laying population in the United States (over 30 million birds),” company officials said in a statement. “This temporary constriction in the US market has caused an increase in price and shortage in availability of eggs.”

The announcement by H-E-B is on the heels of restaurant chain Whataburger announcing they were reducing their breakfast hours because of the number of egg based dishes on their menu.