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Obama committed to GIPSA reform, COOL, Vilsack says

By JERRY HAGSTROM

OMAHA — In a statement with implications for the 2012 presidential race, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said here today that the Obama administration remains committed to a stronger rewrite of the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration rule and to the country-of-origin food labeling program that has been challenged by the Canadian and Mexican governments at the World Trade Organization.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack
Tom Vilsack
Vilsack told the National Farmers Union, a Democratic-leaning farm group that strongly supported both measures in the 2008 farm bill debate, that on the GIPSA rule they should follow the admonition of Winston Churchill, who said, “Never give up. Never give up. Never give up.”

Vilsack noted that the rule did make some improvements for poultry producers and that the administration is still determined to use its regulatory powers to make sure that meat producers “have a fair shake.”

He also said noted that the Agriculture Department has a close relationship with the Justice Department, which has the legal powers to bring antitrust actions related to agriculture companies.

The Obama administration proposed a rule that officials said would give cattle ranchers more power in their relationships with meat packers, but some meat producers and processors reacted so negatively to it that the administration softened the proposal. Later Congress passed a law that prevents the administration from going forward with the rule.

Some members of Farmers Union and other farm and ranch groups have accused the administration of not fulfilling a campaign promise. J. Dudley Butler, the GIPSA administrator who was very popular with Farmers Union and other groups advocating the original proposed rule resigned. Butler has expressed some disappointment with the administration, but has put most of the blame on Congress.

Butler’s departure did not mean a reduced commitment to addressing GIPSA issues, Vilsack said.

The secretary said he has to be careful in what he says about the country-of-origin labeling (COOL) program because the WTO decision is in the process of being adjudicated. He said the administration was disappointed in the section of the ruling that said that some U.S. practices regarding implementation of the rule were discriminatory and violated WTO rules, but was “heartened by the decision that the country can continue to provide information to the consumers.”

The Obama administration is in the process of deciding whether to appeal the WTO decision.

In the speech Vilsack repeated many of the points he made to the Commodity Classic on Friday, urging Farmers Union members to tell Congress to pass a farm bill in 2012.

The secretary said while crop insurance companies are making a 14 percent return on investment, he believes the program would remain stable if the companies maintain a 12 percent return.

There also needs to be a safety net program besides crop insurance, he said.

Vilsack emphasized his commitment to beginning farmers and ranchers, saying that action to help them should go beyond the farm bill to include regulatory and tax policy. He also called for comprehensive immigration policy reform.

“We are getting to the point that crops may rot because we simply don’t have people to pick the crops,” he said.

Responding to a question about what USDA can do to help veterans, Vilsack said a number of beginning farmer loans have been made to veterans and that the program has been particularly helpful for organic producers in California. He also said that land attached to Agricultural Research Service laboratories that will close and land around defense bases should be used to provide opportunities for veterans.

Vilsack said he was proud to be a part of President Barack Obama’s administration, and cited a long list of accomplishments in rural America, starting with record farm income and exports.

But the secretary also involved Obama in a story of why it is necessary to reduce the role of money in politics.

Vilsack said that when he ran for the Democractic presidential nomination in 2008, he went to Hollywood, where a producer gave him a check for $2,300. The producer added, however, that he was holding a fundraising luncheon for Obama at which he expected to raise more than $1 million.

Vilsack said he left the race a week later.

The amount of money spent since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations can spend unlimited amounts in campaigns “is ridiculous,” Vilsack said, adding that the American people must signal “they have had enough of this.”