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Has USDA leadership lost touch?

By John Stencel

Actions and inaction by top U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) officials over the past several years have led many to question if its leadership has lost touch with its mission and constituents.

Last year, as producer groups from all commodities, regions and political leanings called for congressional action to legislate disaster assistance for 2001 and 2002 crop years, I was astounded at USDA Secretary Ann Veneman’s response that farmers should not be in need of disaster assistance given the fine farm bill that was passed. Doesn’t she know that those struck by natural disasters—most notably drought—would be unable to participate in the loan deficiency programs, I wondered.

When President George W. Bush called for any disaster assistance to be offset by cuts in the farm bill, USDA was mute. Yes, as a USDA employee myself for nearly a decade, I understand that presidential appointees are there to do the bidding of the president. But, it would have been endearing to have heard at least some dialog on why aid to farmers suffering a natural disaster had to be offset by a farm budget cut, yet aid to businesses and individuals suffering from these same disasters would not be cut from city highway funding or cuts to the Small Business Administration.

Then came the ridiculous publication by USDA of an estimated $2 billion needed annually to implement country-of-origin labeling (COOL) on foods, a bill passed by Congress as part of the 2002 farm bill. It took a Freedom of Information request by R-Calf to uncover the truth about how the USDA had arrived at this ridiculous figure. You see, the USDA, the department whose mission it is to serve farmers, ranchers and consumers, had asked three organizations to estimate the costs of implementing COOL. These three organizations (National Pork Producers Council, the National Meat Association and the National Food Processors) all vehemently oppose any form of mandatory country-of-origin labeling program.

In order to inflate their estimate, these three organizations knowingly made all kinds of erroneous assumptions. Although prohibited by the COOL law, the estimate included a costly and burdensome animal trace back system. It also assumed creation of new systems, even though many are already in use at USDA and in processing houses.

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised at this shameless attempt to create new opposition to the COOL law, since the USDA leadership’s distaste of the new regulation was apparent from the beginning. Even before COOL became law, the department objected, saying it would be hard to implement. Then shortly after the law was passed, USDA suggested that the law be interpreted to include Canadian products under the U.S. label.

Sadly, despite its mission as an advocate of farmers, ranchers and consumer health, USDA seems more of an advocate of large food processors and grocery chains.