By Jenny Hopkinson | 05/19/2017 10:00 AM EDT

With help from Helena Bottemiller Evich, Doug Palmer, Catherine Boudreau, Anthony Adragna, Mel Leonor and Ted Hesson

MENU LABELING PATCHWORK IN A N.Y. STATE OF MIND: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio doesn't seem concerned that the Trump administration delayed an Obama-era rule that mandated calorie labeling on menus nationwide. The Big Apple announced Thursday it's going to enforce its own labeling standards later this month, bringing back the specter of a patchwork of state and local rules - a situation the restaurant industry has been lobbying for a decade to avoid.

Health advocates hope NYC will inspire officials from other municipalities that have menu labeling provisions on the books to follow suit. Many jurisdictions across the U.S. deferred enforcing local regulations as they waited for FDA's rule to kick in - but seven years and a Trump administration delay later, many may be wondering whether the national measure will ever take effect.

In NYC, consumers are already seeing calories posted on restaurant chain menus, but that will become more common at grocery stores and convenience stores in coming months. The city announced Thursday it will begin enforcing labeling requirements at all chains with more than 15 locations starting May 22, and begin issuing violations for noncompliance on Aug. 21.

Retail vs. restaurant (redux): Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who has lobbied for menu labeling for 15 years, urged cities and states to "follow New York City's lead and go ahead and implement their policies, especially in grocery and convenience stores, which increasingly compete with restaurants for Americans' away-from-home food dollars and have been trying to lobby their way out of providing calorie information to their customers."

Grocery and convenience store groups contend they aren't trying to get around calorie labeling, but just want flexibility in how they present the info. After the Trump administration delayed the menu labeling rule just a few days before it was supposed to take effect, HHS Secretary Tom Price said the FDA would seek to make the rule more flexible, which many took to mean it is likely to be changed. It could be years before the Obama rule, which stems from a little-noticed provision in the Affordable Care Act, finally takes effect.

TRUMP BUDGET SAID TO CALL FOR CUTS TO FARM SUBSIDIES: President Donald Trump is expected to propose slashing farm subsidies and crop insurance in the fiscal-year 2018 budget he'll release next week - a move that provoked House Ag Chairman Mike Conaway to try to meet with OMB director Mick Mulvaney yesterday, Bloomberg reported last night. Though the document isn't likely to get any traction on Capitol Hill, it's a roadmap to the president's priorities - and could create headaches for Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue as he attempts to maintain cordial relations with Trump's farmer base.

HAPPY FRIDAY, MAY 19! Welcome to Morning Ag, where your host went back and forth over whether to make this intro a commentary about the ridiculousness of cloud eggs, a review of President George W. Bush's photobomb style or an opportunity to coo over the baby animals at the Smithsonian zoo - so, dear reader, I'll leave you with all three. You know the deal: thoughts, news, tips, weird food trends? Send them to jhopkinson@politico.com and @jennyhops Follow the whole team at @Morning_Ag.

THE RACE TO BE USDA'S NRE UNDERSECRETARY: There's been plenty of speculation about Perdue's potential picks to serve as his deputy and as trade and farm services undersecretaries, but there is also a simmering battle over the job of undersecretary for natural resources and the environment. Leading the pack seem to be Erica Rhoad, staff director of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands, and Layne Bangerter, a former staffer for Sen. Mike Crapo who was a member of President Donald Trump's transition team and who has advised Donald Trump Jr. on public lands issues.

** A message from the National Confectioners Association - #AlwaysATreat: Leading global chocolate and candy companies are coming together to provide more information, options, and support as consumers enjoy their favorite treats. It's the first step on our journey to help people manage their sugar intake and ensure that they feel empowered to make informed choices. Learn more at AlwaysATreat.com. **

In Rhoad's corner: Lots of public lands and forestry groups, not to mention Sens. Roy Blunt, John Boozman and Tom Cotton , among others. "Rhoad has the experience, knowledge and strategic thinking needed to reform the Forest Service and break the gridlock that frequently plagues the agency," some 32 forest and timber groups wrote to Trump in February. "Respected on Capitol Hill and by all forest user groups, Erica can bring people together and will fight for solutions that can begin working right away to change the direction on our National Forests."

"I think she's just extraordinary," Travis Joseph, president of the American Forest Resource Council, told MA. "I'm not sure there is a more qualified person."

In Bangerter's corner: Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, Idaho farm groups and possibly even Trump Jr. "Layne has deep, real-life experience working on Forest Service, natural resource and agriculture issues," Otter told MA in a statement. "He understands the need to reduce fuel loads that are causing catastrophic wildfires. He understands multiple use concepts and the need for conservation, the restoration of responsible timber harvesting, grazing and mining activities as well as access and recreation."

A forestry focus: Both Rhoad and Bangerter were in the running for the job even before the reorganization, which will leave the forest service as the sole part of USDA still reporting to the undersecretary for natural resources and the environment.

WHERE'S SONNY? South Dakota, actually. The Agriculture secretary will be chatting with military veterans about USDA programs designed to introduce veterans to agricultural careers. He's scheduled to host a listening session at Ellsworth Air Force Base with Sens. John Thune and Mike Rounds and Rep. Kristi Noem along with some local military brass, to hear from veterans and transitioning service members and their families.

Sonny on the Sunny Slope: On Saturday, Perdue will be in Sandhills, Neb., to visit Sen. Deb Fischer on her ranch - Sunny Slope Ranch, in Cherry County - and chat up local farmers, reports the ABC affiliate NTV ABC.

No rest for the weary: The travel will cap off a busy fourth week in office for Perdue - yes, it's only been four weeks. On Thursday, per Twitter, he met with state agriculture chiefs from New Mexico, Michigan and Louisiana, who serve on the leadership board of the National Association for State Departments of Agriculture.

WHEN COMMENTS ABOUT A MOTH ARE REALLY ABOUT TRUMP: How's that for a headline? Comments are due today on an environmental assessment concerning whether USDA should clear Cornell University to do six three-year field trials of moths that are genetically engineered to control their population. The GE insects have an extra gene that causes female moths to die before reaching adulthood, thus curbing populations of the quickly spreading bug, which wreaks havoc on crops like broccoli, cabbages and cauliflower. University officials and supporters of the plan say the moths could be a chemical-free way to limit the pests, but opponents warn the GE moth could throw food webs out of balance. "This sounds like the beginning of a 'Jurassic Park' episode," said one commenter from Sauquoit, N.Y. "The only difference is the size and shape."

A sign of things to come? The farming industry is closely watching how the department responds to the field permit application, since it's a first test for how the Trump administration will handle biotech issues. "This trial is an excellent example of the type of research and innovative solutions that USDA and other government agencies should support," said Dale Moore, executive director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation. "The food security challenge ahead is formidable," he added, "especially given the fragile environment and the innovation pipeline that must be enabled to drive sustainable growth in agriculture."

Next up: The Trump administration will have several decisions to make in coming months and years about how to best regulate biotech products and bring them to market. In June, comments are due on long-sought changes specifying which biotech products are subject to USDA regulation, along with a pair of FDA policies on genome-edited plants and animals. And USDA will have to complete a rule outlining disclosure of GMO ingredients in food products by July 2018.

FARMERS TO TRUMP: DON'T BURN DOWN THE BARN ON NAFTA: The U.S. agriculture industry's message to the Trump administration, after it formally notified Congress on Thursday of its intent to start trade talks with Canada and Mexico, was a resounding "do no harm" to the benefits farmers and ranchers have reaped as a result of the Clinton-era free trade agreement. Organizations representing grain, produce, dairy and livestock farmers said NAFTA is largely working for their industries, especially the integrated supply chains that allow goods to move freely across borders. Since NAFTA's implementation in 1994, U.S. agricultural exports to Canada and Mexico have more than quadrupled, growing from $8.9 billion in 1993 to $38.6 billion in 2015, USDA data shows.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said NAFTA can be modernized to include provisions that address intellectual property rights, labor and environmental standards and sanitary and phytosanitary measures - which countries around the world employ to protect people, animals and plants from diseases, pests and contaminants but which are also often used as trade barriers. The dairy and produce industry said tackling SPS issues is a top priority.

The U.S. agriculture sector may have the most to lose should NAFTA negotiations go south, and farmers and ranchers seem to be cautiously optimistic that the Trump administration understands that. Secretary Perdue, in a statement, said he is confident the effort will result in a better deal for farmers, ranchers and foresters: "When the rules are fair and the playing field is level, U.S. agriculture will succeed and lead the world."

Democrats to The Donald: 'Prove it.' The core group of congressional Democrats who opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership said Thursday that they're worried Trump will only make modest changes to NAFTA, even though he blasted it as an economic "disaster" during the presidential campaign, Pro Trade's Doug Palmer reports. House Democrats are calling for a NAFTA 2.0 to feature rules against currency manipulation, strong "Buy America" provisions and progress on fighting climate change. The National Farmers Union, which also opposed TPP because of how free trade deals have affected the broader U.S. economy, said the Trump administration should use this opportunity to ensure NAFTA doesn't advance the interests of global corporations at the expense of family farmers and rural workers.

DELAURO: TRUMP MUST DIVEST ASSETS IN MEXICO, CANADA: Rep. Rosa DeLauro says that if Trump wants to avoid potential conflicts of interest at the NAFTA bargaining table, he should sell off company assets in Canada and Mexico. "I am deeply concerned about President Trump's conflicts of interest," the Connecticut Democrat said. "The Trump Organization has 14 Canadian and 2 Mexico investments. If the president will not divest of his business holdings or release his tax returns, we cannot know in whose interest these talks are being conducted." The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

FARMERS INCREASINGLY TURN TO LEGAL WORKERS: New data from the Labor Department shows that farmers sought more workers through the H-2A temporary visa program in the first months of the Trump presidency. If an agricultural business wants to employ foreign workers under H-2A, it must first show that it can't find willing and available workers, that the hiring of temporary workers won't adversely affect wages of U.S. workers and that the job is seasonal. The applications to prove that - known as a labor certification - spiked during the second quarter of fiscal year 2017.

From Jan. 1-March 31, farmers filed 4,131 applications to hire 70,852 guest workers through H-2A - up 36 percent from a year ago. Requests by Florida farmers accounted for 16 percent of all applications, followed by Georgia at 13 percent and North Carolina at 10 percent, Labor Department data shows.

Farmers of all stripes have expressed concern about Trump's vast immigration crackdown and what it might mean for their workforce. The president reportedly said at a roundtable last month that he didn't want to create labor problems for the agriculture industry, but the rise in labor certification applications could mean growers are hedging their bets. See a breakdown of the data here. H/t to NPR's Dan Charles, who found the numbers.

'CLEAN SLATE' FOR RENEWABLE FUEL STANDARD TALKS? Rep. John Shimkus, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on the Environment, said Thursday he expected to begin a series of meetings in coming weeks on how to potentially revamp the Renewable Fuel Standard, Pro Energy's Anthony Adragna reports. "We'll probably start meeting with a small group of members on the RFS and start kind of figuring out if there's a pathway," he said. "We're asking the members to come with no agenda, a clean slate."

STABENOW'S STERN WORDS ON EPA PANEL DISMISSAL: Sen. Debbie Stabenow is not impressed with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt dismissing nine members of the agency's Board of Scientific Counselors. In a letter to the administrator on Thursday, Senate Agriculture's ranking member asked for details on the board members who were told to skedaddle, whether those moves could affect agency actions and whether he's got similar plans for several pesticide and food-related advisory boards.

Dems provide rough 'climate' for Zinke's potential sidekick: Stabenow's letter was fired off as she and other Democrats on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee used the confirmation hearing for David Bernhardt, Trump's nominee to serve as No. 2 to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, to raise concerns over how the Trump administration is addressing climate change.

MA'S INSTANT OATS:

- Ryan's still eyein' tax reform in 2017, even as Russia-related woes confronting the White House are sucking the life out of the GOP's legislative agenda, POLITICO's Rachael Bade writes.

- Some conservatives are pining for VP Mike Pence amid the scandals engulfing President Trump. POLITICO's Matthew Nussbaum and Theodoric break it down here.

- McDonald's says it has removed artificial flavoring from its soft-serve ice cream, the Associated Press reports.

- Fast Company profiles a startup that may have figured out a good way to do indoor farming.

THAT'S ALL FOR MA! See you again soon! In the meantime, drop your host and the rest of the team a line: cboudreau@politico.com and @ceboudreau; jhopkinson@politico.com and @JennyHops; hbottemiller@politico.com and @hbottemiller; bgriffiths@politico.com and @BrentGriffiths; and jhuffman@politico.com and @JsonHuffman. You can also follow @POLITICOPro and @Morning_Ag on Twitter.

** A message from the National Confectioners Association - #AlwaysATreat: We've always created transparent, fun, and great-tasting treats. By 2022, Mars, Wrigley, Nestlé USA, Ferrero, Lindt, Ghirardelli, Russell Stover, and Ferrara Candy Company will work together to make half of their individually wrapped products available in sizes that contain 200 calories or less per pack. And, 90 percent of the best-selling treats made by these companies will have calorie information printed right on the front of the pack. During the same time period, the newly established AlwaysATreat.com will evolve into a digital resource full of easy-to-use information for consumers to better understand the unique role that chocolate and candy can play in a happy, balanced lifestyle. Learn more at AlwaysATreat.com. **

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