FMI LOBBYING CONGRESS ON MULTIPLE FRONTS

WASHINGTON (FNS) -- In almost 400 visits to Capitol Hill, grocers organized under the Food Marketing Institute's Public Affairs Assembly this month lobbied Congress to influence legislation on baler operations, immigration reform, dairy subsidies, saccharin signs and labor standards.Tim Hammonds, president and chief executive officer of FMI here, said the timing was ideal, with the presidential primaries

WASHINGTON (FNS) -- In almost 400 visits to Capitol Hill, grocers organized under the Food Marketing Institute's Public Affairs Assembly this month lobbied Congress to influence legislation on baler operations, immigration reform, dairy subsidies, saccharin signs and labor standards.

Tim Hammonds, president and chief executive officer of FMI here, said the timing was ideal, with the presidential primaries winding down and lawmakers now more focused on their legislative slate.

"This is a way of getting our point across from the grassroots," said W.R. MacAloney, president and chief executive officer of Jax Market, Anaheim, Calif. MacAloney, vice chairman of FMI's public affairs committee and a member of its board of directors, met with nine members of the California delegation.

Senators were prodded to seek movement in the Labor Committee of a bill that would permit 16- and 17-year-olds to operate cardboard balers. The bill has passed the House but has seen no action in the Senate. Under the existing law, grocers could face stiff penalties for allowing teenagers to throw boxes in balers. The new measure would permit teens to load the machines as long as they are turned off and meet current safety standards imposed by the American National Standards Institute.

Grocers also are seeking to repeal an 18-year-old law that requires them to post warning signs advising consumers of alleged health risks associated with saccharin. FMI has argued that the retail warning sign is redundant because food products containing saccharin already carry a warning statement on the label.

Jax Market's MacAloney said the saccharin signs were a problem at his four stores because California already requires retailers to post a variety of signs. Retailers also protested a provision in immigration reform legislation that would require them to call an 800 number to verify the immigration status of job applicants. The call would be cumbersome, they say, because government 800 numbers are frequently busy. The Senate Judiciary Committee is working on its version, and the House was slated to consider its plan last week.

Ben McCormick, owner of Leetonia IGA in Leetonia, Ohio, said that with employee turnover up to 70% a year, verification would be time-consuming. He spoke to Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, about scrapping the requirement.

Louis Katapodis, president and chief executive officer of Fiesta Mart, Houston, said he doubted that the 800 number would eliminate fraud because illegal immigrants could still get counterfeit Social Security cards. Katapodis said he met with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, R-Texas; Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, about the measure.

In addition, FMI members voiced support for a bill that would permit employers to offer compensatory time instead of pay for overtime. To keep consumer prices in check, grocers also pushed lawmakers to phase out price supports on dairy products over five years, one part of a massive farm bill under negotiation between the House and Senate. FMI members are backing the House bill, which contains a market-oriented reform plan.

Bob Bartels, FMI chairman and president of Martin's Super Markets, South Bend, Ind., said the dairy subsidies and high milk prices have had a "tremendous" effect on his company. "We see ourselves as a purchasing agent to our customers," he said. "And we should do everything we can to get our customers the right price."