Not Your Father's USDA

March 14, 2009 06:37 AM

As the players in the new administration settle into their roles, it's clear they're approaching their jobs with a different focus than some of their predecessors.

Take USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. His selection was greeted cautiously by ag interests, with some observers complaining that since he served as Iowa's governor and had a keen focus on issues such as biofuels, he was going to be a friend to "big agriculture."

In a question-and-answer session published in the Washington Post, Vilsack was asked about the view that he was too closely aligned to biofuels.

"I would ask for the opportunity for people to get to know me and judge me by the actions I take in this office. I'm not sure the full nature of the
record was understood," he said.

Thus far, his actions signal he'll be a different Secretary of Agriculture than we've seen for some time.

Food and nutrition focus
With nutrition programs garnering nearly three-quarters of USDA's budget, the Secretary of Agriculture oversees the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), school lunches and other programs such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. Vilsack seems to be pushing food and nutrition to the top of his agenda.

He revealed to the Washington Post that food has always been a struggle for him. As a child, he was overweight, and his parents used what today would be termed insensitive ways to address the situation.

"Food is a fairly significant aspect of my life," Vilsack said. "I have struggled mightily with food. … I'm conscious of it. So I have a sensitivity to people who struggle with their weight. That's one aspect people don't fully appreciate. I don't want youngsters to go through what I went through."

It's not that others occupying the top USDA spot haven't focused on nutrition, but Vilsack makes it clear this is a personal issue.

And, Vilsack has backed something no other USDA Secretary has—one food safety agency. "We need a single agency that's working in a modern framework," he told Bloomberg News. "We don't have that today." Vilsack admitted that he didn't see that coming to fruition yet this year. Still, it's another sign we have a more activist-minded USDA chief than we've seen before.

Not quite cool with COOL

Mandatory country-of-origin labeling (COOL) has been a contentious issue since the process began years ago. The COOL rule that was published by the George W. Bush administration was recently put through a White House–ordered regulatory review. When the review was complete, Vilsack briefed the meat industry—including R-CALF but not those representing mainstream producers such as the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and National Pork Producers Council—and those viewed by many as "consumer activists." His plan? No changes to the regulation, as that could cause delays in the process. But Vilsack will request the meat industry to voluntarily broaden the scope of COOL. The public wasn't briefed on the plan until days after the industry and consumer briefings.

It's not guaranteed this approach will work, as some meatpackers have already invested money on new labels to follow the COOL rules set by the Bush administration. If the meat industry doesn't voluntarily follow Vilsack's lead, he pledged, he will come back with regulations to force the shift.

Forewarning farmers

Vilsack is openly warning farmers that they need to find other sources of income, as some of their government payments—specifically direct payments—are under attack. The pressure on direct payments comes in part from President Barack Obama's budget, which proposes ending payments to those with more than $500,000 in sales.

Vilsack has continued to champion biofuels, calling on Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa P. Jackson to boost the blend percentage of ethanol from the current 10% level. "We're encouraging [Jackson] to consider an adjustment to the blend ratio," Vilsack said. "My hope is that we can get a blend rate that is higher than 10%. That is going to create more opportunities for the ethanol industry. "

Vilsack's request received a boost from Underwriters Laboratory's decision to reassert that gasoline pumps can handle blends up to 15% ethanol without any problems.

"This is certainly a more activist-minded USDA Secretary than I've seen in my 30 years of covering Washington," says Jim Wiesemeyer of Informa Economics. "It's almost as though he's trying to prove to his
detractors that he's not beholden to production agriculture."

As the new Obama administration unfolds, it's clear that change has arrived—at least to USDA.

You can e-mail Roger Bernard at

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