- - Thursday, February 24, 2011

USDA

Agency: Food prices to rise 3.5% in ‘11

U.S. consumers could see food costs spiking to levels seen during the food crisis of 2008 as higher commodity and energy prices force companies to raise prices on products lining grocery store shelves, the Agriculture Department said on Thursday.

Food prices are forecast to rise a sharp 3.5 percent this year — nearly double the overall inflation rate. The bulk of the increase is expected in the second half of 2011, when the recent uptick for commodities, such as corn and soybeans, makes its way through the food system. Just last month, USDA forecast an increase of 2.5 percent in 2011.

Food prices soared to 4 percent in 2007 and rose to 5.5 percent a year later — the biggest increase since 1990 — as stockpiles ran low around the world.

MORTGAGES

Freddie Mac posts $1.7 billion loss

Mortgage buyer Freddie Mac has posted a loss of $1.7 billion for the October-December quarter of last year, and a $19.8 billion loss for all of 2010.

The government-controlled mortgage buyer is also asking for an additional $500 million in federal aid. That’s up from the $100 million that Freddie Mac sought in the July-September quarter.

The government rescued Freddie Mac and sibling company Fannie Mae in September 2008 to cover their losses on soured mortgage loans. It estimates the bailouts will cost taxpayers as much as $259 billion.

Freddie Mac’s October-December loss attributable to common stockholders works out to 53 cents a share. It takes into account $1.6 billion in dividend payments to the government. It compares with a loss of $7.8 billion, or $2.39 a share, in the fourth quarter of 2009.

VIRGINIA

Tougher rules OK’d for abortion clinics

RICHMOND | Legislators voted Thursday to make Virginia the first state to require clinics that provide first-trimester abortions to meet the same standards as hospitals.

The Senate deadlocked on the issue, and Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling cast the tie-breaking vote after hours of floor debate over two days.

Delegate Kathy Byron, Campbell Republican, tacked the amendment onto a Senate bill that dealt with infection prevention and disaster preparedness at hospitals and nursing homes. Doing so allowed the bill to sidestep a Senate committee notorious for killing anti-abortion legislation and forced a vote on the Senate floor, where Democrats hold a small majority.

Two anti-abortion Democrats - Sens. Charles Colgan of Prince William and Phillip Puckett of Russell County - voted with Republicans.

The bill now goes to Gov. Bob McDonnell, whose spokesman said he would sign the bill.

The bill requires all facilities that perform five or more first-trimester abortions each month to be categorized as hospitals, which are subject to strict guidelines regarding everything from the structural layout, staffing and equipment to how laundry is done.

IRS

Rules eased on liens for delinquent taxpayers

The Internal Revenue Service says it’s trying to help people who are struggling to pay delinquent tax bills, so it’s reducing the number of property liens and easing rules for small businesses to enter into installment agreements.

As the economy has soured, the agency has filed an increasing number of liens on property owned by delinquent taxpayers. The IRS filed nearly 1.1 million liens in the budget year that ended in September, compared with 426,000 in 2001.

The steps announced Thursday will double the amount of back taxes a person can owe before facing a possible lien. Previously, taxpayers who owed at least $5,000 and ignored numerous IRS notices would get an automatic lien placed on their property. Under the new policy, the threshold is increased to $10,000.

NTSB

Safety chief concerned about pipeline cases

A top federal safety official says she’s concerned about a rash of pipeline accidents across the country over the past year.

National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman said Thursday it’s too soon to say whether the five accidents the board is investigating indicate widespread safety problems in the pipeline industry.

She also told reporters at a media briefing that the board decided not to investigate several additional pipeline accidents because the current workload has strained the agency’s manpower.

NTSB official Steve Klejst said he has only four pipeline investigators in his office. He said it has been a decade since the board investigated a pipeline accident as serious as the one in September in San Bruno, Calif., in which a gas transmission line exploded. Eight people were killed.

TRANSPORTATION SAFETY

Toyota recalls 2.17 million more cars

Toyota Motor Corp. recalled 2.17 million vehicles in the United States on Thursday to address accelerator pedals that could become entrapped in floor mats or jammed in driver’s side carpeting, prompting federal regulators to close its investigation into the embattled automaker.

The Transportation Department said it had reviewed more than 400,000 pages of Toyota documents to determine whether the scope of the company’s recalls for pedal entrapment was sufficient.

Toyota has now recalled more than 14 million vehicles globally to fix gas pedals and other safety problems since 2009. The company has received intense scrutiny from the government since August 2009, when four people were killed in a high-speed crash involving a Lexus near San Diego.

LAND MANAGEMENT

Government to curb wild horse roundups

The government said Thursday it will scale back costly roundups of wild horses that some critics contend are inhumane.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management will reduce the number of wild horses removed from the range by about one-quarter - to 7,600 per year. The agency also will expand the use of fertility controls and increase the number of animals adopted by individuals or groups. The bureau continues to oppose horse slaughter, which some in the West have advocated as a way to thin herds.

To improve the health of wild horses and Western lands, officials need the help of private partners and must ensure that management decisions have a scientific foundation, the agency’s director, Bob Abbey, told reporters in a conference call.

From wire dispatches and staff reports

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