While issues affecting the poultry and production industry might not be getting a lot of press in the run up to the 2016 election, it doesn’t mean the industry should ignore what’s going on in Washington.

On Wednesday, Christian Richter, a principal at Washington-based firm The Policy Group, spoke about a bevy of political issues that will affect the poultry industry in 2016 and the coming years. Richter, who participated in the Poultry Market Intelligence Forum at the International Processing & Production Expo in Atlanta, highlighted the following issues those in the poultry industry should be following.

Labor issues

Richter said Congress’ handling of immigration issues is “broken,” and there’s little appetite to do anything about it in Washington.

He said the nation’s policies are contributing to what he called a net outflow of laborers from Mexico and Latin America because workers are leaving the U.S. to return to their families at home. Mexico is also experiencing an economic renaissance – he pointed to a glut of manufacturing in Mexico – which is pulling more laborers away from the U.S. Richter said this exodus of workers could be contributing to issues with worker availability in the poultry processing industry.

“It’s a very, very real issue. It can be both a hard issue to find practical solutions to, and it could potentially be an existential threat,” Richter said. “The fact is this is going to be a tough one to see any resolution to anytime soon.”

President Barack Obama, who is finishing his term in office, is hungry to build his legacy in his final months in the Oval Office, Richter said, so the executive branch will be flexing its muscles to enact immigration policy reform. Obama’s 2014 executive action to allow non-citizens who spent their childhood in the United States to legally remain in the country, is being challenged as unconstitutional by 26 states and will be taken to the U.S. Supreme Court this year. Richter expects the issue to be adjudicated in the middle of the 2016 presidential campaign.

The Department of Labor, and the Occupational Health & Safety Administration

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Richter said there are several issues the Department of Labor is looking into that poultry producers should be following. Most importantly, the Occupational Health & Safety Administration is preparing to begin inspecting poultry processing plants in the coming months.

“We need to be very, very in tune for where this is going to go,” Richter said. “Not just for our facilities, but also for the brand and the political elements of this.”

Richter said “extreme” criticism of the industry from activist groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center is calling for criminal prosecution of the poultry industry because, the activists claim, poultry workers are some of the most vulnerable and exploited groups in the U.S. He said those groups will be encouraging OSHA, as well as the U.S. Department of Justice, to ensure criminal prosecution for worker endangerment in the coming years.

Forthcoming overtime rules changing the definition of which workers are exempt from receiving overtime pay – which are expected to be enacted before the end of the year – also will have far-ranging implications in all industries, Richter said.

Environmental issues

The Obama administration also will focus on environmental issues as the president looks to build up his legacy. As part of that mission, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are rolling out a Waters of the United States plan, which aims to protect wetlands. Richter said the issue with the initiative is that the definition of a wetland is nebulous. Critics of the plan say it gives the federal agency authority to regulate the water quality of puddles, ponds and ditches holding water.

Richter said Congress and poultry trade groups in Washington are looking to block the EPA rule and file suit against the EPA for what they see as overreach. He predicted the issue will wind up in the Supreme Court eventually, as well.

Richter predicted the EPA will also continue to look into how litter is used in the environment and will continue to develop its Chesapeake Bay rule. He predicts the Chesapeake Bay rule also will wind up in the Supreme Court eventually.

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