The U.S. hog industry has a strong partner in USDA as it weathers the storm created by the A/H1N1 flu virus. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack has been outspoken about the efforts the Agriculture Department is taking to minimize the impacts on the hog industry.
In an exclusive interview as the H1N1 situation was unfolding, Vilsack told Farm Journal he was working to keep markets open for U.S. pork to make sure that the farm families that depend on hog production for their livelihoods can survive.
On the trade front, Vilsack said he "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. We sent that message strongly, and we continue to send that message.” Vilsack said he was heartened by the Japanese response to keep their market open; however, efforts continue to convince other countries to remove their bans. Vilsack said USDA and the U.S. Trade Representative are talking to the nations that closed their borders to U.S. pork and pointing out that "their actions are not science based and they may very well have serious ramifications. We ask them to sort of rethink their position.”
While clearly frustrated by some countries' responses, Vilsack said he does not want to talk about potential actions by the World Trade Organization. "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 with pork products that are safe—and remind them that there is no reason for them to stop using pork and feeding it to their family. We 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,” he stressed.
Vilsack's focus on trade is coupled with "the human consequence to this disease, to this virus,” he added. "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.
"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,” he continued. "All they want is a fair shake. All they want is to be treated properly. 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.”
Vilsack's efforts haven't gone unnoticed by the U.S. pork industry. The National Pork Producers Council gave Vilsack and USDA an "A+" so far for how they've dealt with the situation.
See more from Roger Bernard's exclusive interview with Vilsack on page 50 in the Late Spring issue of Farm Journal.