Legislatives Watch: COVID investigation of meat plants; Biden urged to normalize relations with Cuba; Senate Ag members appointed.

P. Scott Shearer, Vice President

February 5, 2021

7 Min Read
Senate Ag supports Vilsack confirmation
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News

The Senate Agriculture Committee voted unanimously in support of Tom Vilsack’s nomination to be secretary of agriculture. The nomination will now be considered by the Senate.

In remarks before the committee, Vilsack said, “If confirmed, USDA will lead the federal government in building and maintaining new markets in America that diversify rural economies; producing healthy, local, and regional foods; investing in renewable energy; creating a thriving biobased manufacturing sector; embracing sustainable and regenerative practices that enhance soil health; and delivering science-based solutions to help mitigate and reduce climate change.”

Vilsack during his testimony and in answering Senators’ questions outlined areas of importance where action is needed:

  • COVID Institute science-based measures and provide access to PPE to protect our workforce and partners.  “Our USDA food safety inspectors, for example, deserve not only our thanks for ensuring a safe food supply—they deserve knowing we have their backs.”  Vilsack said USDA needs to aggressively promote the nutrition assistance provided by Congress in the last coronavirus relief package, complete the review of the additional relief ordered by Congress for producers and get it out the door as soon as possible. 

  • Climate change – There is a need to provide incentives for soil health. Carbon sequestration must be verifiable and provide market opportunities for producers, and a Carbon Bank should be established.

  • Nutrition – Need to address hunger in the U.S. There are 30 million adults and nearly 17 million children who report they do not have enough to eat.

  • Competition & openness in markets – Create transparency in pricing throughout the supply chain. There is a need to provide alternative processing opportunities, “not just from the competitive standpoint but also from a resilience standpoint.” 

  • Discrimination and equity access – Vilsack pledged to fully address the long-standing inequities, unfairness, and discrimination in USDA programs.

A number of Senators raised the issue of price transparency and fairness in the livestock markets and the need to reinstate mandatory Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL). Vilsack indicated there needs to be additional capacity through new and expanded plants. He will talk to DOJ to recreate the task force on competition and concentration, look at fair and transparent markets and strengthen enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act. He said he is willing to work with Congress on COOL but it must be WTO compliant. 

COVID investigation of meat plants

The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis is launching an investigation into the coronavirus outbreak in meat plants. The investigation is following reports of 54,000 workers at 569 meatpacking plants in the U.S. who have tested positive for coronavirus and 270 employees have died. 

Congressman Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., chairman of the subcommittee, said, “Public reports indicate under the Trump Administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) failed to adequately carry out its responsibility for enforcing worker safety laws at meatpacking plants across the country, resulting in preventable infections and deaths. It is imperative that the previous Administration’s shortcomings are swiftly identified and rectified to save lives in the months before coronavirus vaccinations are available to all Americans.”

The subcommittee sent a letter to OSHA asking for a list of coronavirus-related complaints OSHA has received concerning meatpacking and meat processing facilities, a list of on-sight inspections OSHA conducted at facilities and documents relating to enforcement actions, citations, and fines.  

The subcommittee also sent letters to JBS, Tyson and Smithfield asking for information and documents relating to complaints submitted by employees concerning coronavirus asking how the companies handled these complaints. They also asked about coronavirus inspections by federal or state officials at U.S. plants, how many employees had contracted coronavirus and who died from coronavirus, and how the short-term disability payments related to coronavirus were used.

Sarah Little of the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) in a statement regarding the investigation said, “Public health guidance has varied widely around the world and across the United States throughout the pandemic, but more than $1.5 billion in comprehensive protections instituted since the spring successfully cut average case rates for meat and poultry workers five times lower in December 2020 than they were in May, while infections rocketed up by nine times for the general population in the same period.”

She continued, “The meat and poultry industry is focused on continuing these effective protections, reaffirmed by the Biden Administration, and ensuring frontline meat and poultry workers are vaccinated as soon as possible, as employers, unions, civil rights leaders, and governments around the world agree these workers should be among the first vaccinated after healthcare workers.”

Rural America needs infrastructure investments

In President Biden’s economic recovery plan, “Build Back Better,” he highlights the need to invest in a “modern, sustainable infrastructure” including roads and bridges, energy grids and schools, and universal broadband.

A coalition, “Rebuild Rural,” is reminding the Biden administration of the infrastructure needs of U.S. agriculture and rural America and that previous infrastructure initiatives focused on urban infrastructure. 

In a letter to Biden, state and national organizations said, “We have witnessed this deterioration firsthand – how it jeopardizes jobs, our agricultural competitiveness and health of rural families.”  Also, “Infrastructure that supports rural communities and links them to global markets has helped make the U.S. the unquestioned leader in agricultural production. Our deteriorating infrastructure threatens that leadership position.”

Those signing the letter included the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Farmers Union, National Grange, American Sheep Industry Association, American Soybean Association, National Association of Wheat Growers, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Corn Growers Association, National Cotton Council, National Grain and Feed Association and North American Renderers Association. 

Ag groups urge Biden to normalize relations with Cuba

A coalition of agricultural organizations are urging President Biden to resume efforts to normalize relations with Cuba.

In a letter to Biden, the U.S. Agricultural Coalition for Cuba (USACC) noted the embargo of six decades have been ineffectual. The economic sanctions have limited American influence in Cuba, hurt the Cuban people and antagonized U.S. friends and allies.

USACC also recommended:

  • Ending the embargo

  • Supporting legislation to allow U.S. companies to be able to negotiate trade terms including private financial credit.  This will put the U.S. on equal footing with our competitors.

  • Resuming full operation of the U.S. Embassy in Havana. 

Those signing the letter include American Soybean Association, National Association of Wheat Growers, National Corn Growers Association, National Potato Council, National Turkey Federation, US Grains Council, U.S. Wheat Associates, and USA Rice Federation.

Cuba imports $2 billion in food products each year, with the U.S. accounting for only 10% of the total. 

On the way out the door to make it harder for the Biden administration to deal with Cuba, the Trump administration placed Cuba on the terrorist list. North Korea, Iran and Syria are the other countries on the list. A group of senators wrote then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticizing the Administration’s action.  In a letter, the senators said, “In the final days of the Administration, efforts to politicize important decisions concerning our national security are unacceptable and threaten to damage future diplomatic efforts toward Cuba and set a harmful precedent for future designations.”



The Senate leadership announced the appointments to the Senate Agriculture Committee this week, including five new members.  With a 50-50 Senate, there will be 11 Democratic members and 11 Republican members.

Democrats: Senators Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), chair, Pat Leahy (Vt.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Mike Bennet (Colo.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Tina Smith (Minn.), Dick Durbin (Ill.), Cory Booker (N.J.), Ben Ray Lujan (N.M.), and Raphael Warnock (Ga.).  Booker, Lujan, and Warnock are new to the committee.

Republicans: Senators John Boozman (Ariz.), ranking member, Mitch McConnell (Ky.), John Hoeven (N.D.), Joni Ernst (Iowa), Cindy Hyde-Smith (Miss.), Roger Marshall (Kan.), Tommy Tuberville (Ala.), Chuck Grassley (Iowa), John Thune (S.D.), Deb Fischer (Neb.), and Mike Braun (Ind.).  Marshall and Tuberville are new committee members.

Senator Booker in the previous Congress introduced “The Farm System Reform Act of 2019,” which would strengthen the Packers & Stockyards Act to “crack down on the monopolistic practices of multi-national meatpackers and corporate integrators,” place a moratorium on CAFOs, and restore mandatory country-of-origin labeling requirements. He also introduced legislation to place a moratorium on mergers and acquisitions in the agriculture and food sector.

Sources: P. Scott Shearer, is solely responsible for the information provided, and wholly own the information. Informa Business Media and all its subsidiaries are not responsible for any of the content contained in this information asset.

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.

Subscribe to Our Newsletters
National Hog Farmer is the source for hog production, management and market news

You May Also Like