Interview With USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack

April 29, 2009 07:00 PM

via a special arrangement with Informa Economics, Inc.

Ag chief comments on H1N1, COOL, nutrition and food safety, ag research, and climate change

NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.

The following are topics I and Roger Bernard, Pro Farmer news editor, discussed late Wednesday with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack during an interview in his Washington, DC office. Vilsack, as usual, had a busy schedule but we managed to get nearly 30 minutes with the former governor of Iowa. Despite his hectic schedule, we found him at ease, and very focused on priorities. In detail he explained the Obama administration's views and priorities for USDA and how that mission complements the overall focus of change in the administration's policies.

-- H1N1 impacts: U.S. pork exports. How are you keeping pork export markets open following H1NI?

Vilsack: When the situation first uncovered itself last weekend, I gave instructions to the staff from our Foreign Ag Service to send a specific message to all of our major trading partners that this was not a food-borne illness issue, that this was not something that involved the quality of pork or the consumption of pork and that we would hope they would make decisions based on science and a rules-based approach, which is the internationally accepted approach. And we sent that message strongly, and we continue to send that message. We were pleased with the Japanese response in particular, which was very strong and unequivocal that pork products are safe from the U.S. and [there is] no reason to interfere with their importation into the country.

We recognize that some countries have taken steps in the last couple days and we are continuing to work through the U.S. Trade Representative's office and through the State Dept. to send a very strong message to them that their actions are not science based, that they may very well have serious ramifications and we ask them to sort of rethink their position.

What is the U.S. recourse regarding countries banning U.S. pork exports as a result of H1N1? Would you go to the World Trade Origination (WTO)?

Vilsack: I really don't want to get into what if's. I think right now I want to focus on what we're doing which is to try to make sure that we restore confidence and provide consumers in this country that pork products are safe and that there is no reason for them to stop using pork and feeding it to their family, and to continue to reinforce the message to our trading partners that this is not a food-borne illness, our products are safe and decisions relative to products ought to be made on a science-based process.

Consumer focus: Some in the U.S. pork industry are focusing on Hispanic residents in the southwestern U.S. via ere some educational bulletins about the H1N1 situation. Are you doing anything like that?

Vilsack: We're focused on all consumers because the bottom line is that there's been a lot of media attention on this. There has been a relatively simple phrase used to describe this particular virus and it has not made things easier for us.

How should the virus incident be labeled?

Vilsack: I call it H1N1. The president calls it H1N1. We're trying to encourage folks, the media in particular, to move away from the other designation.

Especially the urban media?

Vilsack: I had one interview today where I was quite insistent on this. What people have to understand is this: There is a human consequence to this virus. Our hearts go out to those who have lost loved ones and to those who are currently dealing with people that are sick and those who are worried about whether their loved ones are going to get sick. Our hearts go out to them. But there is also another human component to this: the hard-working farm families throughout the United States of America that are raising pork to take care of their families, to support their communities. All they want is a fair shake. All they want is to be treated properly. And that's what a science-based, rules-based international system is all about and that's what USDA needs to be continuing to do in terms of consumer confidence.

-- Country-of-origin labeling (COOL): If you get to the summer and you have 90% of pork and around that for beef designated as Category A labeling (U.S. origin), would you pursue further changes if things did not meet your expectations?

Vilsack: Let me be clear about this. I called the industry into my office and they advised me of the steps they were prepared to take with reference to the passage of the legislation. Remember that our job is not to pass legislation, but to implement it. It is to follow the intent of Congress. It isn't to make policy; it's to carry it out, which is what we're trying to do. We were assured by the industry that their intentions were very consistent with congressional intentions when Congress passed the COOL legislation. All we are looking for is a verification or an indication that is what in fact is happening.

How will you verify labels are following intent of Congress?

Vilsack: We will periodically check. We're working on developing precisely how that will be done. Obviously, the rules just went into effect and we're giving people time to get used to it. At the end of the day, what this is all about is that consumers simply want to know where their food comes from. And I think the whole notion of know your farmer, know your food, is something that is very consistent with our mission at USDA. We're encouraging local production and local consumption and we're encouraging people to know about their food, to know where it comes from. Why? Because I think that helps them make the connection between the farmer and what's on their plate. And sometimes we miss that connection. A lot of our children are growing up thinking their food comes from the grocery store.

Do you support legislation by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) that would include processed products into COOL?

Vilsack: I haven't seen Sen. Brown's legislation and I think we're going to focus on the responsibilities that we have.

But you previously suggested you may want to look at the processed product area... are we wrong on that?

Vilsack: What we were interested in doing is to make sure that the processed product exemption was not misused.

-- Ag research: The world population is now at 6.7 people and estimates are it will increase to around 9 billion in 2050. At least 80 percent of the increase will be in developing countries. Is U.S. agriculture research funding – and its structure – adequate to meet that challenge?

Vilsack: Well I must say we're excited to have announced the president's intention to nominate Rajiv Shah, who is affiliated with the Gates Foundation, to be in charge of overseeing the research effort here at USDA. This is a medical doctor by training and certainly someone who understands and appreciates research and how to leverage research dollars. He has been working on this for quite sometime.

I'd like to give Raj and his team a chance to kind of get into the research world at USDA and make recommendations to me about improvements that could be made... whether we're directing resources the way they ought to be directed. It would be helpful if we had a bit more flexibility in terms of our research. So much of what we are required to do is directed by members of Congress.

You mean ag research earmarks?

No answer from Vilsack.

Targeted funding?

Vilsack: However it is characterized. But the reality is that Congress lets us know precisely what kind of research they'd like done. I would hope that as they get confidence in Raj and his team that they would allow that team a bit more flexibility of what needs to be researched and why. We are faced with significant invasive species issues that can cause serious damage to crops, livestock. We are faced obviously with situations like are now (H1N1 flu virus). We are faced with research about how we can make nutritious food more acceptable, particularly for children. The president has tasked me and USDA with the responsibility of increasing the nutritional value of meals that youngsters have during the school lunch and breakfast program.

I think there are some research opportunities there to tell us what will it take.

Is that Rajiv Shah's charge?

Vilsack: His charge is to come to me and say, 'How can we improve research capabilities of USDA? How can we have people in this country understand how wide the mission areas of USDA are?' We have been using this brand that USDA is an every day, every way department. This department is absolutely a phenomenal place. There is great potential in terms of impacting every single American's life every day with what we do at USDA. There are a lot of issues that are available for research, that are important for research that we ought to have the flexibility to do. I have a lot of confidence in Raj if he is confirmed in this capacity to get that done.

-- Nutrition and food safety. We're confused on your position on a single food agency. Early on, you suggested support for a single food safety agency and then you seemed to back away from that. What is your position?

Vilsack: First of all, let me say why it is important. It is a priority. There are two reasons why it is important. First, statistics. We have 75 million Americans who have a food-borne illness at some point and time during a year. Well over 300,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 die. By saying this, I'm not suggesting the way we produce food and process food is responsible for those numbers. Obviously, the way people treat food at home... the way they refrigerate it, the way they cook it, all of that is involved. But the reality is those are fairly large numbers in all categories. There's a human issue here.

There's also a market issue here. The greater the confidence people have in the safety of their food, the more confident they will be to buy it, which means that your markets are protected, which means it's important to both perspectives.
Now to your question...

The president decided that he wanted a working group to look at the issue of food safety. And he asked me and (Health and Human Services) Secretary (Kathleen) Sebelius to be in charge of that responsibility. The working group I hope will focus on at least all of the following and probably a lot more.

One: Can we get a consistency in philosophy in how we approach food inspection. Right now, it's fair to say that USDA is focused on prevention by the way in which we inspect facilities and by the way in which we can walk out of a facility and essentially shut it down if we suspect there's a problem and that prevents it from getting into the food supply, versus FDA that is really focused on a mitigation strategy once a problem occurs -- how do you mitigate it, how do you minimize it, how do you contain it, how do you prevent it from spreading. I think it's helpful if we have a consistency in this philosophy.

Second: Precisely what kind of authority any agency will have, whether it's a single agency or multiple agencies, relative to food, is problematic. Should there be recall authority, and if so, how far should it extend and who should be allowed to do it and under what circumstances. I think that should be part of the conversation.

I think it's also important for us to recognize that since we have 15 different agencies engaged in some aspect of food safety, that we develop a method by which there is real-time communication of issues. When you have multiple agencies, you have the risk of creating confusion about what each agency knows and how each agency makes decisions and what decisions they make based on what they know. So to the extent we can create, and there are multiple organizational structures and ways in which this can be done, a consistency and a connection of communication so everyone knows what everyone else knows... that would be helpful.

Are you surprised that had not been done already?

Vilsack: Well, when you get 15 different agencies, you have a new government, and there is transition, it's not surprising. I think it is important for us to ask the question is there a way in which as soon as FDA knows something that USDA knows it, and as soon as USDA knows something, that FDA knows it. So we can look out for each other and can look out for the people of this country.

And then there needs to be a conversation about organizational structure. But if you don't get the philosophy right, and you don't get the authority right and the communication structures right, it won't make any difference what kind of system you've got, it's not going to work as well as it should. I think these are all issues the president wants us to look at.

You have to have a foundation?

Vilsack: You have to build the foundation.

Will you merge the Food Pyramid into school lunch and other nutrition programs?

Vilsack: We are in the process of formulating our recommendations as it relates to the reauthorization of the school lunch and school breakfast programs. I want to say there's going to be a renewed focus on the quality of those programs. There's going to be a renewed effort that we invest more in nutrition and that we invest in more fruits and vegetables being involved in those meals. And we're going to look for ways to create greater efficiency and greater accountability in those programs.

The dietary guidelines are in the process of being changed. There's a group working on it and we expect in 2010 they will come out with recommendations. I think we obviously want to take a look at what they propose. Clearly the message is that we have got to improve the quality of these school lunches. We have children at both ends of the spectrum. We have youngsters who are hungry and those who are obese or at risk of being obese or at risk of being overweight and they are both problems that need to be addressed fundamentally in the way that we approach school lunches.

We can approach the hunger issue based on access, making sure kids have access. And make sure during off-school months and weekends that they have access.

On obesity we need to make sure that what is available to kids is nutritious, good for them and also linked to more physical activity.

-- Farm program spending cuts to bolster nutrition funding. You previously called your remarks on this topic “inartful” relative to linking a phaseout of direct payments for some farmers to help fund nutrition programs. Some people wondered if you were pitting nutrition groups against production agriculture.

Vilsack: Here's the reality: Budgets are always about priorities and choices and it's important for folks in Congress and other folks to understand the president's priority was increasing resources for nutrition, increasing resources to expand access to school lunch and breakfast programs, and to try to end childhood hunger by 2015. Those are our priorities and we have to fund those priorities. At the same time, we have to be fiscally responsible.

Regarding the budget process, the House and Senate are working on, they essentially said, 'Yes, we like the idea of more money for nutrition programs, however, you have to identify for us or we'll identify where we're going to reduce some other side of the ledger.' The reality is the system essentially compels priorities. We did make several proposals relative to the way in which we are currently creating a safety net for farmers. We realized the Congress wasn't going to go ' Gee this is a great budget. Why don't we vote on it right now?' They're not going to rubber stamp it and they're going to come up with their own proposals. At the end of the day they have the final say about what those choices are. We just wanted to make sure they understood how important the priority was that the president placed on making sure kids have more nutritious food. I think they got that message.

-- Climate change: How are you going to guarantee on climate change that agriculture has a seat at the table on climate change with energy and climate czar Carol Browner and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson?

Vilsack: Let me say this about both of those women, particularly Lisa Jackson. I have been appreciative of the fact that the administrator of EPA has sought me out on a number of issues and asked for input. She won't necessarily always take my suggestions or input but she's asking for it. That's important. It is very important that producers and farmers and ranchers understand that she is sensitive to the challenges they face.

Carol Browner is absolutely intent on making sure that agriculture is at the table, that forestry is at the table. Why? Because she recognizes and I think it's true for any of us working on this at the interagency process, that agriculture and forestry are a significant .... it's more a solution than it is part of the problem. That's not always true of a lot of the other industries engaged in climate change. Many of them are faced with some very serious challenges. No question. But in agriculture and forestry, we are looking at maybe 7 percent to 10 percent of the problem relative to greenhouse gasses -- nitrous oxide, methane and, much less so, carbon -- but 20 percent to 25 percent of the solution.

Where are those numbers coming from?

Vilsack: I'm thinking specifically of a study that I saw from the 25 x 25 group and I've seen similar numbers in a variety of publications. Bottom line is if you look at the capacity of our land and our forests to act as carbon sinks; if you look at the way in which we can manage our livestock differently whether it's by what we feed our livestock or capture the methane that's produced by them; how we farm the land; what we farm on the land; when we fertilize, how we fertilize, what we use... these are all options, opportunities for us to have a discussion on how agriculture can be part of the solution.

And there would be programs to transition to that?

Vilsack: Our hope is that when they establish a cap-and-trade system, that they will create some kind of offset program and as part of that program, agriculture and forestry is central and key to it -- that people are essentially paid to do something they might not otherwise do, much the same way they are currently paid for conservation. For wetland restoration, for grassland reserve programs, for CRP. This is basically saying, 'Look, you're going to use your land for societal benefit and we're going to help you do that in a profitable way.' Why is that important? This is why from a farmer/rancher perspective:

If you look at what is happening in farming and ranching in this country, there are basically five trends.

You see a trend of small, small-income activities growing. These are the ma and pa truck stop, farmer's market kind of activities -- 108,000 have been started in the last five years. That's a great story. A great opportunity for us to migrate them into mid-income sized operations if we figure out how to link them with local consumers and local purchasers.

You've got production agriculture -- the rather large income farms. The larger farms virtue of their size, by virtue of their efficiency, by virtue of what they do, they produce the bulk of our food. The top 5 percent produce 75 percent of all our food. You have increases of 41,000 of those folks. So you have increases on both sides of the spectrum.

And then in the middle, you see a decrease -- you've lost about 80,000 farms, mid-income-sized operations. Some of those migrated to large operations, but the reality is most of them just went out of business. So what do you do?

Then you overlay that with the fact the farmers we do have are aging. We went from 55 years to 57 years of age on average. In five years we aged two years. That's a pretty rapid aging of farmers.

And you then overlay the fact that a substantial portion of farmers in some form or another -- either themselves, a spouse or other family members -- have to have off-farm income.

So you have those trends. What do you do? First thing is try to create a market for those locally produced fruits, vegetables and nuts, to make it easier for people to market their products, make it easier to expand their production so they migrate from small operations to mid-sized operations.

For the mid-sized operations, we have to say what other opportunities can we create for you... aside from the markets you currently have. You start thinking about biofuels and renewable energy. The capacity to use waste products on the farm, to use farmland for windmills or solar panels or whatever, resources there. Conservation Stewardship Programs, those kinds of things.

For the big guys, it's basically about continuing to advance the technologies to continue to be more productive. Developing new strategies for how we market genetically modified crops. How we could have more worldwide acceptance of what we're doing on that side of the equation and continue to keep open export markets and continue to stress the need for open markets. So that's the strategy.

And then you have programs in the farm bill that help beginning farmers so that you get young farmers into the business.

There is a lot of anxiety out there....

Vilsack: There's always anxiety because things are changing. And then you overlay that with a strong rural development component that helps to create jobs, because the reality is that is critical to survival of farmers and ranchers, and then you overlay that with the climate change offset transition to a clean economy and clean jobs, green jobs, and you've got yourself more potential for healthier rural areas than you have today. And if you use the programs that are available in an integrated fashion you can actually leverage resources from the federal government with local resources to create opportunities in those areas.

NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.


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