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Conagra to open snack R&D center in Chicago but says Omaha workforce won't shrink

Conagra Brands’ local research and development operations shouldn’t lose any steam with the planned opening of a new snack-focused “innovation center” in Chicago.

That’s according to a company spokesman who said Omaha will remain Conagra’s primary R&D hub, even as some snack-specific tasks will be relinquished to the new Chicago facility.

In the end, said Conagra’s Dan Hare, Omaha’s existing Center for Food Design and Technology will sharpen attention on the company’s expanded variety of frozen, refrigerated and shelf meals as well as condiments and enhancers.

The Chicago facility will be charged with creating trendier and healthier options for a fast-growing munchies industry.

“This is a new investment in our overall R&D capabilities,” Hare said. “In fact, we are creating new R&D jobs in Omaha because of the growth of the business.”

About 300 food scientists, chefs, safety experts and others currently are housed at the Omaha R&D structure — which is one of a trio of brick riverfront structures occupied by a downsized Conagra that moved its corporate flag to Chicago three years ago.

Hare said the Omaha R&D facility has added employees in recent months, largely as a result of the 2018 acquisition of Pinnacle Foods, and should be left with a net gain of about 25 professionals, even after the Chicago facility is fully staffed.

In all, he said, Conagra employs about 1,300 at the Omaha riverfront campus — that’s up about 100 from a year ago, yet down from the more than 2,000-person workforce based there about four years ago.

In addition to the Omaha jobs, Conagra employs about 700 at a Council Bluffs plant that produces Marie Callender’s, Banquet and other frozen meals.

After Conagra concentrated its Omaha business operations on the southern end of the riverfront campus, it launched a $500 million plan with an out-of-state developer to create a mix of housing, hotel, retail and office uses on the idle parts. That proposal remains active.

A World-Herald team took a recent tour of the Omaha R&D facility, also referred to as Building 6. It was a wonderland of sorts for foodies.

In almost every room was a meal, a condiment, a package of edibles waiting to be researched, tasted or examined in some way.

There were multiple kitchens, labs, taste stations, brainstorming and virtual-reality rooms, 3D printers, even an herb garden — all stuff that a $9.5 billion food giant uses to get a host of food brands from innovation stage to your dining room table.

Hare said the Omaha R&D center will interact closely with the Chicago R&D facility on some matters, including labeling work.

He said various jobs, such as a microbiologist, might be based in Omaha yet still provide support to the Chicago crew.

Because there currently are snack-related jobs at the Omaha center, Hare said, some Omahans probably would have an option to transfer. But he expects candidates to be interested in local job possibilities opening up with recent business acquisitions.

“I would expect there will be plenty of jobs there in Omaha for those people who work in R&D,” Hare said.

Set to open next year, the Chicago R&D center is to have up to 50 food designers and culinary staff members whose mission is to imagine and create popular snacks in cool packages to further push growth in Conagra Brands’ $2 billion snacks business.

“The expansive kitchen and tasting area will be an ideal place to collaborate with our customers and develop new food solutions,” Corey Berends, senior vice president of research and development, said in a press release.

The 40,000-square-foot building will rise across from the Merchandise Mart, where Conagra planted its corporate flag after being headquartered in Omaha since 1922. About 550 are employed at the Mart.

Snack foods are a $43 billion industry in the U.S., with healthier products and more flavors boosting growth, according to a June research report by IBISWorld. The segment is also a growing part of Conagra.

The food giant two years ago bought Angie’s Boomchickapop, Duke’s meat snacks and Bigs seeds, all considered to be on the healthier end of the snacking spectrum.

Conagra also has such brands as Slim Jim, Duncan Hines, Hunts, Birds Eye, Chef Boyardee, Healthy Choice, Fiddle Faddle and Swiss Miss.

Berends said that creating the snack-specific Chicago center will help ensure continued growth.

This report includes material from the Chicago Tribune.

Fortune 500 and 1,000 companies in Omaha

NASA will pay firms to take first steps in moon mission
Agency seeks companies to make deliveries to spacecraft in lunar orbit


WASHINGTON — The agency that sent humans to the moon 50 years ago is offering $7 billion to take the first steps for a U.S. return to the lunar surface within five years.

NASA is seeking U.S. companies that can deliver cargo, experiments and supplies to a spacecraft named Gateway in lunar orbit as part of the planned Artemis landing mission. It's the largest of several proposals unveiled since May as the agency accelerates work to return to space, with the eventual goal of reaching Mars.

The agency is still lobbying Congress and President Donald Trump to sign off on Artemis, which may require as much as $30 billion to complete the task by 2024, NASA Administrator James Bridenstine said on CNN in June. He later declined, in testifying to a Senate committee, to pin down an estimate. In May, Trump increased NASA's budget for next year.

"We've put an end to decades of budget cuts and decline," Vice President Mike Pence said Aug. 20 at a Virginia meeting of the National Space Council. "We've renewed America's commitment to human space exploration, vowing to go further into space, farther and faster than ever before."

The U.S. 2024 landing target would be ahead of the goal set by China, which wants to have its astronauts at a research station at the moon's south pole in the 2030s. India in July launched its second unmanned lunar mission, with a south pole landing scheduled for early September.

NASA's lunar plan is a two-stage approach: landing on the moon by 2024 and establishing a sustained base on the surface and in orbit by 2028. From the moon, the U.S. plans to send men and women to Mars.

"Fifty years ago we had Apollo," Bridenstine said at the Space Council meeting. "It just so happens that in Greek mythology, Apollo had a twin sister, her name was Artemis, she was the goddess of the moon."

Last month, NASA sought proposals from companies for a system to carry supplies and other items on a commercial rocket to the small Gateway station for six months of docked operations. The craft would be used for storage and trash.

"This solicitation builds on the capabilities NASA pioneered in low-Earth orbit with commercial cargo resupply to the International Space Station and is the next step in commercialization of deep space," Bridenstine said in a statement.

In July, NASA sought bids for a $2.6 billion contract to build the next generation of lunar landers, including vehicles that can handle heavier payloads and touch down at themoon's south pole, according to a July 30 announcement.

NASA in May awarded its first contracts for the moon mission - $375 million to Maxar Technologies Inc. of Westminster, Colorado - to develop power and propulsion systems, components needed to land astronauts on the moon by 2024. The contract was more than Maxar's market value at the time.

The agency has approved more than $150 million for specific unmanned landing tasks. Astrobotic Technology Inc. of Pittsburgh won a $79.5 million contract to fly payloads to Lacus Mortis, a large crater on the moon's near side, and Intuitive Machines of Houston was awarded $77 million to carry payloads to Oceanus Procellarum, a scientifically intriguing dark spot on the moon. Both are to land by July 2021.

The U.S., which in July marked a half-century since Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon, spent an estimated $28 billion to fulfill President John F. Kennedy's lunar landing pledge. Adjusted for inflation, the cost by today's measure is $288 billion, according to the Planetary Society, which was founded by astrophysicists including Carl Sagan.

The proposal issued this month by NASA could be for as long as 15 years with a value capped at $7 billion.

Offutt projects spared in shift of funds to border wall, but 55th Wing could feel impact

No Nebraska military projects were among the 127 whose funding the Pentagon said last week would be spent instead on fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border.

But airmen from Offutt Air Force Base could still feel the impact.

Of the $3.6 billion in military construction funds the Trump administration is shifting to the border, about $180 million is for work at three overseas bases where the Offutt-based 55th Wing deploys RC-135 reconnaissance jets on a nearly continuous basis or plans to in the future.

About $45 million is for improvements specifically for the RC-135 Rivet Joint operation in England, which the Air Force plans to move from RAF Mildenhall, northeast of London, to RAF Fairford, which is northwest of London, in 2023-24.

Deferred overseas projects

The defunded projects at RAF Fairford include a $38 million intelligence and operations building, a $5.5 million runway overrun, and $2.15 million in aircraft-related infrastructure. The Air Force planned to award contracts in November, as part of an effort to renovate RAF Fairford for the new U.S. presence. No U.S. forces have been permanently assigned there since 2010.

Two Rivet Joint support units, the 95th Reconnaissance Squadron and the 488th Intelligence Squadron, are also scheduled to make the move with 530 military personnel and 740 family members.

Currently, detachments of 55th Wing airmen deploy nearly continuously with their RC-135s — a military variant similar to the 1960s-vintage Boeing 707 airliner — to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan; Souda Bay, Greece; and Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, in addition to RAF Mildenhall.

From those deployed bases, the Rivet Joint jets gather electronics and signal intelligence while flying missions near Russia, China and North Korea, as well as the war zones in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

About $90 million was diverted from construction projects at Kadena and $48 million from Souda Bay. Those unfunded projects, however, don’t appear to be directly related to RC-135 operations.


A U.S. Air Force RC-135 Rivet Joint from the Offutt-based 55th Wing takes off RAF Mildenhall in England in April. Mildenhall is one of a handful of bases the RC-135s are regularly deployed to during reconnaissance missions.

Of the $3.6 billion in military construction money the Pentagon is shifting to the Mexican border, half ($1.84 billion) is coming from overseas bases. An additional $700 million is from bases in three U.S. territories: Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. About $1.1 billion is from projects slated for domestic bases in 23 states.

At Offutt, a $9.5 million overflow parking lot outside the new StratCom headquarters was spared. A $176 million reconstruction to rebuild Offutt’s sole runway is being delayed from December 2019 to October 2020, but for unrelated reasons. It is funded from a maintenance budget that isn’t subject to raiding for the border wall.

Construction of the new fencing does begin to fulfill a central promise of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign of building a border wall to reduce illegal immigration, though he pledged that the Mexican government would foot the bill. Mexico refused.

Congress approved $1.375 billion for wall construction in this year’s budget, the same as the previous year and far less than the $5.7 billion that the White House sought. Trump grudgingly accepted the money to end a 35-day government shutdown in February but simultaneously declared a national emergency to take money from other government accounts.

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Elaine McCusker, the Pentagon comptroller, said the now-unfunded projects are being “deferred,” not canceled. Defense officials also said they would focus on projects set to begin in 2020 and beyond, with the hope that the money could eventually be restored by Congress.

But Capitol Hill Democrats, outraged over Trump’s use of an emergency order for the wall, promised that they won’t approve money to revive them.

A senior defense official told reporters in Washington that the Pentagon is urging members of Congress to restore the funding but agreed that the department has “a lot of work ahead of us.”

The Pentagon reviewed the list of military projects and said none that provided housing or critical infrastructure for troops would be affected, in the wake of recent scandals over poor living quarters for service members in several parts of the country.

The military base projects facing the chopping block tend to address less urgent needs like new parking at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, and a variety of small arms ranges at bases in Wisconsin and Oklahoma. But a “cyber ops facility” in Hampton, Virginia, and the expansion of a missile defense field at Fort Greeley, Alaska, face the ax, too.

Deferred domestic projects

Trump has so far succeeded in building replacement barriers within the 654 miles of fencing built during the Obama and Bush administrations. The funding shift will allow for about 115 miles of new pedestrian fencing in areas where there isn’t any now.

The government will spend the military construction money on 11 wall projects in California, Arizona and Texas, the administration said in a court filing last week. The most expensive is for 52 miles in Laredo, Texas, at a cost of $1.27 billion.

In addition, new stretches of fencing proposed along the Rio Grande and through a wildlife refuge in Arizona promise to ignite legal battles that could delay the wall projects as well.

The Laredo project and one in El Centro, California, are on private property, which would require purchase or confiscation, according to the court filing. Two projects in Arizona are on land overseen by the Navy and will be the first to be built, no earlier than Oct. 3. Seven are at least partly on federal land overseen by the Interior Department, including a 31-mile stretch through Arizona’s Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

Photos: Offutt Air Force Base through the years

For years, fentanyl has flowed into the U.S. via postal Service

NEW YORK — Chinese drug traffickers had some advice for American buyers of fentanyl: Let us ship it to you by regular mail.

It might be slower than FedEx or UPS, but the opioid is much more likely to reach its destination through the U.S. Postal Service.

These digital drug dealers wrote their U.S.-based customers - in emails later uncovered by federal investigators - that private delivery companies electronically tracked packages, allowing the easy identification of mail from suspect addresses and creating a bright trail connecting sellers and buyers of illegal fentanyl.

The Postal Service for years did not institute similar safeguards — and that gaping hole in the nation's borders has not been fully closed despite legislation compelling its elimination.

Fifteen percent of all packages from China are still not electronically tracked. The figure rises to 40% for all packages from around the world entering the United States.

"What do we not know about these packages that are coming in?" asked Frank Russo, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection port director at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

"When you're talking about a million packages a day," he said, noting the amount of international mail arriving at JFK alone, "40% is a large number."

On Aug. 21, the Trump administration sanctioned three Chinese nationals accused of trafficking fentanyl. Sigal Mandelker, the Treasury Department's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said the "Chinese kingpins" directly contributed to the nation's opioid addiction crisis.

"Themost common distribution medium is via the U.S. Postal Service," the Treasury Department said.

Trump later tweeted that he was "ordering all carriers," including the Postal Service, "to SEARCH FOR & REFUSE all deliveries of Fentanyl from China (or anywhere else!)."

The illicit use of the U.S. mail system, widely recognized but unaddressed for years, was just one in a number of persistent vulnerabilities at the nation's ports of entry and in international mail centers as the fentanyl epidemic metastasized and tens of thousands of Americans died, according to dozens of interviews with law enforcement officials and lawmakers and internal government documents.

Thomas Overacker, executive director of cargo and conveyance security for Customs and Border Protection, told Congress in July that his agency is able to inspect only about 2% of cars and 16% of commercial vehicles that come across ports of entry at the southwest border — another major pathway for fentanyl.

CBP has experienced a critical shortage of officers and trained dogs. Last year, then-Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., released a report concluding that the agency had 4,000 fewer officers at the nation's ports of entry than were needed.

Such warnings have been sounded for years.

Four years after the fentanyl epidemic began in 2013, Customs and Border Protection was not deploying enough officers or portable spectrometers that could detect the drug to make a significant dent in the flow of the synthetic opioid, according to government reports and interviews.

Dogs also were not trained to detect fentanyl at any ports of entry, including in the mail, until 2017. That was two years after the Drug Enforcement Administration alerted that the drug was being ordered over the Internet and shipped directly to U.S. mailboxes from China or smuggled in vehicles or containers crossing the border from Mexico.

Fentanyl — 50 times more potent than heroin — has fueled the deadliest drug epidemic in American history. From 2013 through 2017, more than 67,000 people died of synthetic opioid-related overdoses, the majority of them from fentanyl. In 2018, an additional 31,473 Americans died, according to the latest available figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While prescription opioid overdoses fell last year, deaths from fentanyl rose, according to provisional data in a CDC report released in July. Fentanyl is the third wave of the opioid epidemic, which began with prescription pills, migrated to heroin and then morphed into the current crisis.

Responding to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Congress passed a law in 2002 requiring advanced electronic data on every package coming into the United States through commercial companies, such as UPS and FedEx. Lawmakers feared that terrorists could mail biological and other weapons into the country.

But the legislation exempted the Postal Service, which feared that the new rules would slow down delivery and be too costly to implement. Under the law, the secretaries of the treasury and homeland security were supposed to consult with the U.S. postmaster general to determine whether it was "appropriate" for the Postal Service to require the tracking data. No such consultation ever happened, according to government officials.

In 2018, Congress passed another tracking law, this time to try to stanch the flow of fentanyl coursing through the mail. The measure requires that all packages from foreign countries include tracking data.

The Postal Service tried to defeat the measure and has still not implemented all the safeguards required, such as tracking the senders and receivers of all packages from China, said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who co-sponsored the bill.

"How many people have to die before the post office gets serious about this?" Portman said in an interview.

The Postal Service said it is moving as quickly as it can to comply with the law.