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Vilsack headed back to USDA

Legislative Watch: Biden nominating Vilsack for ag secretary; USDA issues final rule; plant workers should be priority for vaccine; CR passed to extend funding.

P. Scott Shearer

December 14, 2020

6 Min Read
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President-elect Joe Biden announced he will nominate former Secretary Tom Vilsack to serve as Secretary of Agriculture. 

Vilsack served eight years as secretary of agriculture during the Obama administration and advised Biden on agriculture and rural issues during the campaign.  Currently, he is president of the U.S. Dairy Export Council.

Many agricultural groups believe his experience as ag secretary will allow Vilsack to hit the ground running in addressing the issues facing farmers, ranchers and consumers.

American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) president Zippy DeVall said in a statement, “Tom Vilsack understands that the agriculture sector is far more complex than most people understand. He believes in a ‘big tent’ philosophy that supports all types of production and understands the importance of respecting farmers and ranchers as partners worthy of support in the race to achieve sustainability goals.”

Rob Larew, president of the National Farmers Union, commented, “Between pandemic recovery, the imminent threat of climate change, rampant corporate power, and chronic overproduction, family farmers and ranchers have significant challenges ahead of them in the next several years – and they need a strong secretary of agriculture behind them to make it through in one piece. After eight years leading USDA, Tom Vilsack has the necessary qualifications and experience to steer the agency through these turbulent times.”

National Pork Producers Council president Howard “AV” Roth said, “As both a former governor of Iowa, the top pork-producing state in the country, and former USDA secretary, he understands how critical a vibrant America farm sector is to the rural and overall U.S. economy and the importance of keeping consumers supplied with an affordable source of nutritious protein.”

Julie Anna Potts, president of the North American Meat Institute said, “Secretary Vilsack brings experience and leadership to the Department of Agriculture at a critical time when the meat and poultry industry works to put food on American’s tables and to keep the farm economy working in a pandemic.  We look forward to working closely with Secretary Vilsack in his new role to ensure our industry remains a valuable partner to livestock producers, an efficient supplier to consumers and competitive in the international marketplace.”

Not all groups are pleased with the announcement as they view Vilsack as being too traditional when it comes to agriculture. 

Food and Water Watch policy director Mitch Jones said prior to the announcement that Vilsack “has made a career of catering to the whims of corporate agriculture giants – some of whom he has gone to work for – while failing to fight for struggling family farmers at every turn.

He continued, “America needs an agriculture secretary that will finally prioritize sustainable family farming and national food security over corporate profits. Tom Vilsack has proven he will not be the griculture leader we need.”

If confirmed, Vilsack will be one of the few cabinet members in history to serve in different administrations.  James Wilson served as secretary of agriculture from 1897-1913 under Presidents William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft.

Undue and unreasonable preferences

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) issued a final rule to define “Undue and Unreasonable Preferences and Advantages” to clarify the types of conduct prohibited under the Packers and Stockyards (P&S) Act. 

It establishes criteria that USDA will consider when determining whether the conduct by packers, swine contractors or live poultry dealers represent an “undue or unreasonable preference or advantage.”

The criteria include, but are not limited to:

  • cannot be justified on the basis of a cost savings related to dealing with different producers, sellers, or growers;

  • cannot be justified on the basis of meeting a competitor’s prices;

  • cannot be justified on the basis of meeting other terms offered by a competitor; and

  • cannot be justified as a reasonable business decision.

Some groups raised concerns with the rule and others objected.

The North American Meat Institute said in a statement that the final rule “introduces some uncertainty into the use of those tools by allowing consideration of other, undefined, factors,”

R-CALF chief executive officer Bill Bullard said they will ask the new administration to voluntarily rescind the rule because it provides “safe harbors” for the packers.  Bullard noted,  “..when producers are in need of seeking protections against a packer's granting of undue or unreasonable preferences, the producers’ burden will shift from proving a packer violated the Act to now having to prove the packer does not qualify for any of the various safe harbors the USDA has created to protect packers from effective enforcement.”

The rule is scheduled to go into effect on January 11, 2021 and was required under the 2008 farm bill.

Meat, poultry workers should be priority for vaccine

After health care workers, residents, and workers in long-term care facilities receive the COVID-19 vaccine, The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Pork Producers Council, and the North American Meat Institute are urging that the nation’s governors to give high priority to those who work in the meat and poultry industries.

Food manufacturing, which includes meat and poultry workers and livestock producers, was declared a critical infrastructure sector by the Department of Homeland Security earlier this year.

The organizations in the letter said they support the Centers for Disease Control’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recent recommendation administering the vaccine first to health care workers and certain other high-risk individuals. “But, prioritizing thereafter meat industry workers and their livestock suppliers addresses an industry that is part of the critical infrastructure and necessary to ensure the animals are harvested and processed. Such prioritization would allow the utilization of an existing system to deliver the vaccine to a significant and important part of the workforce.”

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) is urging the CDC to declare essential workers at grocery stores, meatpacking and food-processing facilities a priority.

Governors and state public health officials are in the process of determining priority groups for COVID-19 vaccinations now that CDC has made priority recommendations and approved the first vaccine for use. 

CR until December 18

To avoid a government shutdown tonight, a continuing resolution was passed earlier last week to extend funding the federal government until midnight on December 18.  Congressional leaders continue negotiations on a coronavirus aid package.  The Senate planned to vote December 11.  

Liability protection and aid to state and local governments are two major issues that need to be resolved before there is a coronavirus aid agreement. 

Source: P. Scott Shearer, who is solely responsible for the information provided, and wholly owns the information. Informa Business Media and all its subsidiaries are not responsible for any of the content contained in this information asset. The opinions of this writer are not necessarily those of Farm Progress/Informa.

About the Author(s)

P. Scott Shearer

Vice President, Bockorny Group, Inc.

Scott Shearer is vice president of the Bockorny Group Inc., a leading bipartisan government affairs consulting firm in Washington, D.C. With more than 30 years experience in government and corporate relations in state and national arenas, he is recognized as a leader in agricultural trade issues, having served as co-chairman of the Agricultural Coalition for U.S.-China Trade and co-chairman of the Agricultural Coalition for Trade Promotion Authority. Scott was instrumental in the passage of China Permanent Normal Trade Relations and TPA. He is past chairman of the USDA-USTR Agricultural Technical Advisory Committee for Trade in Animals and Animal Products and was a member of the USAID Food Security Advisory Committee. Prior to joining the Bockorny Group, Scott served as director of national relations for Farmland Industries Inc., as well as USDA’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Congressional Affairs (1993-96), serving as liaison for the Secretary of Agriculture and the USDA to Congress.

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