Vilsack: Fruit, veggie sector shouldn't foot full burden of funding enforcement of labeling law
WASHINGTON -- In his first national news conference, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Jan. 26 that the Obama administration would reverse a Bush administration plan to use $3.2 million from a fruit and vegetable block grant program and...
WASHINGTON -- In his first national news conference, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Jan. 26 that the Obama administration would reverse a Bush administration plan to use $3.2 million from a fruit and vegetable block grant program and use it for enforcement of the manda-
tory country-of-origin labeling program for agricultural products.
Vilsack also said the public comment period on a farm subsidy payment limit rule that the Bush administration had scheduled to end Jan. 28 would be extended for 60 days.
The United Fresh Produce Association immediately issued a statement praising the decision on the block grants, which are distributed through state agriculture departments.
"We are extremely pleased that Secretary Vilsack has made this decision and reversed what was simply bad public policy all the way around," said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of United Fresh.
Fruits and vegetables are among the crops covered under the country-of-origin labeling law, but Guenther said, "it is incomprehensible that the previous leadership at USDA would place the entire burden of funding (country-of-origin labeling) enforcement on our sector, when (labeling) applies to meat and seafood as well."
Vilsack also noted that the administration will review the entire country-of-origin labeling rule that is scheduled to go into effect March 16. R-CALF United Stockgrowers of America, the U.S. Cattlemen's Association and the National Farmers Union have called for stricter labeling rules than the Bush administration had planned. These groups contend that the Bush rules allow processors to mix beef from Canada, the United States and Mexico too easily.
Focus on nutrition
Vilsack made it clear that the decision on the fruit and vegetable program was part of a signal that the administration plans to promote good nutrition as part of health care reform. The federal nutrition programs should both alleviate hunger and promote better health and nutrition, he said. Vilsack also said he considers increased spending for nutrition programs in the stimulus package to be a stimulus for agriculture and rural America. Every dollar in nutrition spending creates $1.73 in economic activity, he said.
By deciding to extend the comment period on the payment limits rule the administration has waded into one of the bitterest battles in agriculture. The 2008 farm bill said the Agriculture Department should tighten its rules on who is eligible for farm subsidies. The Bush administration issued an interim rule that applies to the 2009 crop year.
Major farm groups including the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Farmers Union and commodity groups wrote Vilsack saying that the Bush administration definition of who is "actively engaged" in farm management and therefore eligible for subsidies and other changes went "beyond" congressional intent.
But Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, wrote Vilsack on Jan. 13 that the new rule "left open a glaring loophole that allows individuals to qualify as eligible payment recipients through vague and ambiguous criteria of management."
Ferd Hoefner of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition said Jan. 27 that the Bush rule only "nibbles around the edges" of making a meaningful change. Vilsack said he was extending the comment period because the agency has received only a half-dozen comments.
"The president has indicated he wants this government and this agency to be very transparent," Vilsack noted.
Vilsack also noted that the Obama administration supports congressional plans to include money for updating the USDA computer system in the stimulus package and said that the basic goals for food safety should be decided before considering a merger of food safety agencies. He also said that in negotiating trade agreements, it's important "we don't sacrifice agriculture."
Vilsack said the Obama administration had urged Congress to include money in the stimulus package for updating the USDA computer system. Vilsack called the current USDA computer technology "very dated." But he also cited the central problem with the USDA computer systems -- that the 29 agencies within USDA have been allowed to make their own decisions on what technology to adopt.
"One of the key is to make sure we develop a consistent system so the secretary can send out one e-mail rather than multiple e-mails," he said.
Critics have said, however, that the various divisions of USDA do not want a unified system because the use of many systems allows senior managers to develop power bases and makes it very difficult to streamline management.
Vilsack added, "We need a Web-based system that is easily accessible to farmers." The system should improve service, collect accurate data and be more efficient, he said.
A new computer system also would be central to the future of USDA's work force, Vilsack said. He noted that 58 percent of USDA's employees are 45 or older. Those employees' expertise is "not easy to replace," he noted.
Vilsack also noted that he will make settlement of civil rights cases and the work atmosphere key elements in his management. Vilsack said the number of civil rights complaints at the agency has gone down, "but we still have more work to do."
The future work force at USDA should be "modern and diverse," he said.