USDA moves to tighten work requirements for food stamps
By JULIET LINDERMAN
Friday, December 21
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration is setting out to do what this year’s farm bill didn’t: tighten work requirements for millions of Americans who receive federal food assistance.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Thursday proposed a rule that would restrict the ability of states to exempt work-eligible adults from having to obtain steady employment to receive food stamps.
The move comes the same day that President Donald Trump signed an $867 billion farm bill that reauthorized agriculture and conservation programs while leaving the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which serves roughly 40 million Americans, virtually untouched.
Passage of the farm bill followed months of tense negotiations over House efforts to significantly tighten work requirements and the Senate’s refusal to accept the provisions.
Currently, able-bodied adults ages 18-49 without children are required to work 20 hours a week to maintain their SNAP benefits. The House bill would have raised the age of recipients subject to work requirements from 49 to 59 and required parents with children older than 6 to work or participate in job training. The House measure also sought to limit circumstances under which families that qualify for other poverty programs can automatically be eligible for SNAP.
None of those measures made it into the final farm bill despite Trump’s endorsement. Now the administration is using regulatory rulemaking to try to scale back the SNAP program.
Work-eligible able-bodied adults without dependents, known as ABAWDs, can currently receive only three months of SNAP benefits in a three-year period if they don’t meet the 20-hour work requirement. But states with an unemployment rate of 10 percent or higher or a demonstrable lack of sufficient jobs can waive those limitations.
States are also allowed to grant benefit extensions for 15 percent of their work-eligible adult population without a waiver. If a state doesn’t use its 15 percent, it can bank the exemptions to distribute later, creating what Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue referred to as a “stockpile.”
The USDA’s proposed rule would strip states’ ability to issue waivers unless a city or county has an unemployment rate of 7 percent or higher. The waivers would be good for one year and would require the governor to support the request. States would no longer be able to bank their 15 percent exemptions. The new rule also would forbid states from granting waivers for geographic areas larger than a specific jurisdiction.
Perdue said the proposed rule is a tradeoff for Trump’s support of the farm bill, which Trump signed Thursday.
“I have directed Secretary Perdue to use his authority to close work requirement loopholes in the food stamp program,” Trump said at the signing ceremony. “That was a difficult thing to get done, but the farmers wanted it done, we all wanted it done, and in the end, it’s going to make a lot of people happy.”
Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi on Thursday slammed the Trump administration’s efforts to restrict SNAP.
“Why at Christmas would you take food out of the mouths of American people?” she said.
The USDA in February solicited public comment on ways to reform SNAP, and Perdue has repeatedly voiced support for scaling back the program.
The Trump administration’s effort, while celebrated by some conservatives, has been met with criticism from advocates who say tightening restrictions will result in more vulnerable Americans, including children, going hungry.
A Brookings Institution study published this summer said more stringent work requirements are likely to hurt those who are already part of the workforce but whose employment is sporadic.
House Agriculture Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, was the primary champion for tighter SNAP work requirements in the House farm bill and remained committed to the provision throughout negotiations.
Conaway praised the rule Thursday for “creating a roadmap for states to more effectively engage ABAWDs in this booming economy.”
Conaway in September blasted the Senate for refusing to adopt work requirements and suggested that Perdue doesn’t have the authority to make broad changes to the SNAP program.
“The Senate seems to have abandoned the idea that it is Congress’ responsibility to fix the waiver issue and that somehow Secretary Perdue could wave a magic wand and fix that. It’s not his responsibility; he does not have the authority,” Conaway said in an interview with Pro Farmer, a trade publication.
On Thursday, Conaway spokeswoman Rachel Millard said the congressman was referring to Perdue’s authority to change laws, which he does not have, not the secretary’s ability to pursue regulatory action. She said Conaway continues to support Perdue’s efforts to limit SNAP.
The top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, who along with its Republican chairman, Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, crafted the bipartisan Senate bill without any changes to SNAP, blasted the Trump administration for its attempt to restrict the program.
“This regulation blatantly ignores the bipartisan farm bill that the president is signing today and disregards over 20 years of history giving states flexibility to request waivers based on local job conditions,” Stabenow said. “I expect the rule will face significant opposition and legal challenges.”
Why Ebola is proving hard to beat in the DRC
December 19, 2018
Virologist, University of Glasgow
Connor Bamford does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Partners: University of Glasgow provides funding as a member of The Conversation UK.
Nearly this time exactly two years ago I wrote about the latest positive results showing – for the first time – that a vaccine against one of the world’s scariest viruses, Ebola, could work. I was writing after the epidemic that hit Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone from 2013 until 2016. Since then, there have been three more outbreaks of the disease: all in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The first two outbreaks (in 2017 and 2018) were extinguished quickly as the DRC is experienced in stopping Ebola. When a new outbreak happened earlier this year, I also said that it would be quickly brought under control especially with use of the vaccine. But that is not the case: the latest outbreak has been going on for months, infecting 505 people and killing 296 by the middle of December 2018.
Why is Ebola proving so recalcitrant to our best efforts at stopping it? The answer lies partly with the inherently deadly properties of the Ebola virus; the DRC’s instability is another element of the problem.
Ebola: one of the worst viruses
Ebola is a dreadful disease. It causes fever, vomiting and diarrhoea and bleeding, and is one of the deadliest infections known to medical science. At least half of the people who get the disease will die – even with the best medical care.
The spread of the virus is closely linked to human behaviour. It’s transmitted via contact with the bodily secretions from someone who is already sick with Ebola. This means that those who are caring for the sick and dying, such as close family members or healthcare workers, are more likely to get infected.
These close ties to basic human social biology can result in a dramatic disruption to family community and regional life. This is only compounded by the trade and travel restrictions that are often applied by surrounding nations.
There is now a safe and effective Ebola vaccine, rVSV-ZEBOV. But one of the reasons that Ebola is so deadly and frightening is that there is no cure. There are medical treatments for some of the symptoms, such as fluid loss, pain and fever – but nothing that can eradicate the disease entirely.
This lack of a cure shouldn’t suggest that researchers and doctors aren’t trying. Since Ebola was discovered in the late 1970s, scientists across the world have been studying the virus and have identified a number of ways of preventing infection and disease. But testing new potential drugs for a virus that’s as unpredictable as Ebola in humans is nearly impossible.
That being said, some experimental drugs are being used under compassionate usage rules, giving an unapproved medicine to someone who is very near to death. And there are plans in place to conduct a number of rigorous trials in the DRC, during the current outbreak.
Finding a safe and effective cure for the disease will go a long way in stemming future outbreaks.
Controlling the virus
For now, the best way to control the Ebola outbreak is to ensure that an infected person does not pass the infection on to more than one other person.
A “straightforward” way to do this would be to find, treat and isolate every infected person then track down all the people they could have spread the virus to and make sure they don’t get sick and then isolate them, and so on. This is aided in Ebola as it has a relatively long incubation period of at most three weeks and it is typically pretty obvious that you are sick allowing you to find sick people and their exposed contacts before it’s too late.
The existence of rVSV-ZEBOV makes this process much more efficient. It can make treating Ebola safer and less open to disruption. Vaccination can be used to immunise and block infection in contacts of identified sick people.
The vaccination approach appeared to work well at the end of the West African outbreak and this time it may in fact be the reason that this DRC outbreak is not infinitely larger than it could be. However, the vaccination process requires a lot of effort and resources on the ground. Working in larger, more-complex, densely-populated regions – and especially in the case of an extended outbreak – makes this much more challenging. This is what’s happened in the DRC. And why predictions about getting the latest outbreak under control have been so wrong. What I, and others, hoped would not be an insurmountable issue, is that a great deal of the East of the DRC is essentially war zones. This has meant that contact tracing and vaccination efforts are easily disrupted.
Ebola in the future
As the DRC outbreak shows no sign of ending, and grows in complexity near cities and war zones, the world must not get complacent. Global efforts must be redoubled. If they are not, there’s the risk that we will have to somehow learn to live with an Ebola that never goes away.
‘Top Chef’ alum owes $3M for shuttered Baltimore eateries
Friday, December 21
BALTIMORE (AP) — Baltimore judges have ruled that a chef who appeared on TV’s “Top Chef” owes more than $3 million to affiliates of the real estate company that owns the buildings that housed his now-shuttered restaurants.
The Baltimore Sun reports circuit court judges ruled in two separate cases that “Top Chef” alumnus Bryan Voltaggio and his business partner, Hilda Staples, owe millions in unpaid rent and outstanding payments for Inner Harbor restaurants Family Meal and Aggio.
According to court documents, Family Meal stopped paying rent in December 2015 and closed in August 2016. Aggio stopped paying rent in April 2016 and closed in March 2018. The spaces in buildings owned by The Cordish Cos. remain empty.
The judgments against Staples were stayed after she filed for bankruptcy in October. Voltaggio’s lawyer could not be reached for comment.
Information from: The Baltimore Sun, http://www.baltimoresun.com
China calls US arrogant and selfish after hacking indictment
By YANAN WANG
Friday, December 21
BEIJING (AP) — China called the U.S. arrogant and selfish on Friday after two Chinese citizens were charged with stealing American trade secrets and other sensitive information on behalf of Beijing’s main intelligence agency.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said “the Chinese government has never participated in or supported anyone in stealing trade secrets in any way.”
She accused the U.S. of undermining the development of other countries in order to defend its own hegemony.
“The U.S. is a world superpower, and it’s quite arrogant and selfish,” she said during a regular press briefing.
The U.S. Justice Department announced Thursday the indictment of Chinese nationals Zhu Hua and Zhang Shilong for allegedly carrying out an extensive cyberespionage campaign against government agencies and major corporations.
Besides the alleged U.S. infiltration, Zhu and Hua are also accused of breaching computers linked to companies in at least 11 other countries, including Japan, the United Kingdom and India.
More than 90 percent of Justice Department economic espionage cases over the past seven years involve China, said Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and more than two-thirds of trade secrets cases are connected to the country.
“China’s state-sponsored actors are the most active perpetrators of economic espionage,” FBI Director Chris Wray said in announcing the case. “While we welcome fair competition, we cannot and will not tolerate illegal hacking, stealing or cheating.”
Hua, the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said: “They believe that a lie repeated a thousand times will become the truth, but I want to tell them that a lie is still a lie even after it has been repeated ten thousand times.”
In a written statement issued earlier Friday, she said the U.S. was “fabricating facts.”
The whereabouts of Zhu and Zhang are unclear. China does not have an extradition treaty with the U.S.
“There is some cooperation under the framework of Interpol, but if the Chinese government doesn’t agree with the U.S. charges, there is no way to extradite the accused,” said Li Fangping, a Beijing-based criminal lawyer.
Li said that if Zhu and Zhang travel to other countries that have signed treaties with the U.S., they could be detained for possible extradition, as was the case with Chinese tech executive Meng Wanzhou’s recent arrest in Canada.
The indictment says the pair worked for the Huaying Haitai Science and Technology Development Company in Tianjin and acted in association with the Chinese Ministry of State Security’s bureau in the northeastern port city.
A public company registry says that Huaying Haitai’s work includes the development of computer software, consulting and business related to a variety of technical equipment.
Among the cyberespionage maneuvers detailed in the indictment is the alleged use of a phishing technique which sent emails that appeared to be coming from legitimate email addresses but were in fact from members of “Advanced Persistent Threat 10,” the China-based hacking group to which Zhu and Zhang purportedly belong.
James Gong, a cybersecurity senior associate at the Herbert Smith Freehills law firm in Beijing, said the mere announcement of charges is likely to affect public perception of China.
“The allegation itself will give rise to some suspicion, at least, among the international public, that these hacking activities are actually supported by the Chinese state,” he said.
Associated Press writers Michael Balsamo and Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this story.
Unmeltable chocolate and bean-to-bar: A cocoa expert highlights 3 sweet trends
December 20, 2018
Author: Kristy Leissle, Researcher & author, University of Washington, Bothell
Disclosure statement: Kristy Leissle is affiliated with Twin & Twin Trading, a London-based development-through-trade organization that facilitates specialty cocoa trading for producer organizations.
‘Tis the season to eat chocolate. And for the chocolate industry, there’s nothing sweeter, since this is the time of year when it enjoys a spike in sales and, at least for some, rising profits.
Globally, chocolate and its source, cocoa, are in a moment of dynamism and change. In some cases it’s for the worse, as the industry faces the realities of climate change. Other changes, however, are for the better, as cocoa producers, chocolate makers, researchers and even retailers offer creative new ways to interact with this beloved food and the people who bring it to us.
I’ve been researching and writing about all things chocolate for 15 years, from its politics and geography to its history and culture. Here are three fascinating trends I’ve been following that are reshaping the industry.
Craft chocolate explodes
One of the biggest changes has been the rise of craft chocolate.
For most of the 20th century, a few major brands like Hershey, Mars and Nestlé dominated the market. That began to change in 1997, when Scharffen Berger opened its doors in Berkeley, California, and became the first new bean-to-bar maker in decades.
To see how much things have changed, look no further than the Northwest Chocolate Festival, held every autumn in Seattle, which recently celebrated its 10th year. When I became education director for the festival in 2010, I knew maybe a dozen craft chocolate makers to invite. In 2013, the last year I held the role, I surveyed the market and was able to locate 37 bean-to-bar makers operating commercially in the U.S.
Today, there are more than 200.
The rise of craft chocolate has meant a true renaissance. These makers often take an artisanal approach, getting to know their materials well – in this case, cocoa and sugar – and shaping them carefully from bean to finished product. The results are lovingly crafted bars, many of them single origin that showcase cocoa’s natural flavor range.
Stories and labels
With this artisanal market shift has come rising consumer demand for education about chocolate.
My own analysis of the craft market shows that consumers now want more than just a piece of chocolate. They expect makers to also share a story, from who grew the beans to the flavor profile of the finished product.
But this surge in craft chocolate makers and stories can also create confusion at the grocery store.
A visit to a typical sweets section these days reveals dozens of new and attractive chocolate bars stretching down the aisle, bearing a dizzying array of labels: Fairtrade, direct trade, Rainforest Alliance, IMO Fair for Life, bean to bar, raw, handmade, craft and artisan – to name just a few.
Is there any real difference among these claims, or are they all simply marketing hype? And what does it really mean to be artisanal?
By and large, labels do one of two things: say something about a chocolate maker’s ethics or its process.
Fairtrade, for example, sets a price floor for cocoa. In a market where cocoa’s price can fluctuate dramatically, this introduces some budget stability for certified producer organizations, because they know in advance the minimum price they will receive. Fairtrade certified organizations also receive what is called the social premium – an amount paid over and above the price for the cocoa, which is reinvested into community development projects or, in some cases, distributed as cash payments to growers.
Direct trade, which Taza pioneered for chocolate, approaches things a bit differently, focusing on maintaining close and mutually supportive relationships with producers over the long term.
As for process, and consumer understandings of it, I examined how new chocolate makers use the term “artisan.” An artisan once was a person who spent long years as apprentice to a master, training in a craft, and “graduated” only when that master said the trainee was ready.
Opportunities for apprenticeship vanished in the U.S. because the few chocolate companies that dominated the 20th century guarded their manufacturing secrets so closely. But once Scharffen Berger began marketing its chocolate as artisanal, the number of makers calling themselves “artisan” grew at an astonishing rate.
In consumer surveys I conducted for this research, I found that people associated the term “artisan” with passion for chocolate making, rather than formal training in the craft. Furthermore, my findings suggested that consumers translate passion into good flavor. So the word “artisan” seems to sell a delicious chocolate eating experience, which may or may not be true.
I also concluded that terms like artisan are meant to do more than sell a product. The term, and the storytelling that accompanies it, is intended to educate consumers about what makes this chocolate different from mass-produced candies.
For consumers eager to get a story with their chocolate, these labels provide plenty of information. My advice is not to try to learn every story but to follow the ones that you find compelling. The more we learn about the people who bring us chocolate, the more mindfully we can enjoy it.
Melting in our mouths
One of the main reasons chocolate is so enjoyable and compelling to the human palate is because cocoa butter, the natural fat of the bean, melts at just below our body temperature, at around 93 degrees Fahrenheit. This gives it its distinctive mouth-feel, covering our taste buds thickly and evenly.
But it’s also a major headache for chocolate makers and retailers because it means their wares are susceptible to melting into mush in hotter regions and during the summer. And so the industry has been hard at work for decades on creating chocolate that doesn’t collapse in the heat.
The effort began in 1937, when Hershey developed a heat-resistant bar for the U.S. Army, which resulted in over 3 billion Field Ration D units being distributed to solders during World War II.
More recently, in 2015, researchers at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences announced their discovery of the gene that determines cocoa butter’s melting point. If this gene can be manipulated, it may mean another route to heat-resistant chocolate.
Today, Barry Callebaut, the world’s largest chocolate maker, reportedly makes a bar that remains stable at up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Nestlé, Hershey and Mondelēz also have heat-resistant projects that aim to conquer the melt problem while maintaining the mouth-feel.
For the company that solves this challenge, and still keeps chocolate feeling silky smooth, the prize will be enormous: vast new potential markets throughout Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
And for consumers, the result may one day be a planet covered in chocolate – sharp and square, in its most pleasing form, and ready to melt where it ought: in our mouths.
This piece incorporates and updates several of Kristy Leissle’s previous articles for The Conversation, including “Labels of love: how to choose chocolate for your Valentine.”
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