The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture News As It Happens

Vilsack thanks restaurateurs, pushes immigration reform

In what may be standard fare as he campaigns for President Barack Obama’s re-election, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today thanked the National Restaurant Association’s board of directors for making more nutritious food appealing, said Obama’s economic plan will help the country “get back to building things,” defended ethanol and, when no one in the audience asked about immigration, raised the issue himself.

Speaking to a group that has had conflicts with the administration over the healthcare bill and other issues, Vilsack started off by thanking the restaurateurs for their help on issues on which they agreed, including the Food and Drug Administration food safety modernization act.

He also noted that for children to eat food with less sugar and less sodium “you have to make it appealing,” and thanked them for the role that their chefs have played in helping schools develop more attractive foods.

“Reducing sugar and sodium sounds easy, but it’s not,” he said, but, “we have to do it,” because obesity-related illness raises the cost of health care so much.
But when a representative of the British hospitality industry attending the meeting told Vilsack that he and his wife were shocked that food companies in the United States are allowed to advertise health claims for chocolate milk, Vilsack defended the practice.

“You touch a nerve when you’re talking about chocolate milk. I really like chocolate milk,” he said, adding that there is low-fat chocolate milk. Noting that his wife Christie is “out of D.C.” a lot [she is running for the U.S. House of Representatives in Iowa], Vilsack said that he has been doing his own grocery shopping and watching people shop, and found that they look at labels and are interested in “what they eat, where it comes from.”

Information, he said, leads to better choices, but acknowledged that U.S. companies also are allowed to advertise the benefits of foods that are not so nutritious. “We’ll see who’s got the better strategy,” he added.

Rather than focus on the agriculture section of the president's jobs and deficit reduction proposal that was announced today, Vilsack noted that the cuts to payroll costs for business would help them directly, while continuing the cut for workers “may make it easier for families to have a meal out.”

Vilsack also urged them to support the president’s proposal for infrastructure improvements.

“The country has to get back in the business of making things,” Vilsack said, including “things the country has not made before.” To accomplish that, he said, the country needs improved railroads, ports, airports, locks and dams and broadband internet access.

When an audience member from Kansas asked the secretary what he could do about the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory agenda, particularly the farm dust regulation, Vilsack said it is important for people worried about EPA to determine whether the agency is really doing what some people say it is.
EPA is not planning to regulate rural dust, Vilsack said, but is required by Congress every five years under the Clean Air Act to examine particulate matter in the air.

“They are focused on coarse materials that come from smokestacks,” he said, adding that dust from industry does cause people to die earlier.

He also noted that dairy producers worried that spilled milk would be regarded as a pollutant, but that EPA did not reach that decision.

Corn-based ethanol, he said, does not increase food prices nearly as much as people in the food industry may think, he said, but added that once ethanol reaches 15 billion gallons per year, the industry has to find other forms of biofuels to fulfill the renewable fuel standard.

High oil prices have much more of an effect on food prices than ethanol, Vilsack said, adding “I never hear anyone say high oil prices are responsible.”

When a member of the audience said that high oil prices affect only those in the transportation sector, while higher food prices affect “people who eat” and the country’s image, Vilsack disagreed, saying that people who eat pay the costs of transportation through their food, and that exports have not fallen because production is up. Byproducts of ethanol are also used as animal feed, he added.

Immigration reform has been an issue for the restaurateurs, but when no one asked him about the administration’s position, Vilsack said he wanted to discuss the issue before he left. Noting that the Smithsonian's Museum of American History has exhibits on innovation and immigration as phenomena that made America great, Vilsack said that in 1960 the United States began restricting the ability of people from countries to the south to move back and forth. The result, he said, is that people stayed and that the United States now has 12 million illegal immigrants.

Today American agriculture still needs immigrant workers, he said, adding that there are crops not being picked in Georgia because there are no workers.
Vilsack urged the group to encourage both Republicans and Democrats in Congress to “to get the [immigration] thing fixed. Otherwise we will have big problems in agriculture. Immigration’s “going to be more significant over time in my view than corn-based ethanol,” he concluded.