via a special arrangement with Informa Economics, Inc.
Ag chief comments on H1N1, COOL, nutrition
and food safety, ag research, and climate change
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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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or
retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.