Jolley: Five Minutes (not) with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack
For those of you expecting to see the long-promised interview with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, let me set the stage. In early June, I traveled to Jefferson City to attend an NAIS listening session. I was joined by several hundred distinctly angry people who wanted to personally give the Secretary a piece of their mind. I’m using the singular version of the word because they were of a common opinion. Many voices, one mind.
One of the first things I heard was the voice of the Secretary explaining his rationale behind calling these meetings. It was delivered by videotape and a longer variation of his initial comment announcing the sessions: “Today, I am asking farmers and stakeholders to engage with USDA in a more productive dialogue about NAIS. Now is the time to have frank and open conversations.”
At the table behind me was a big fella in well worn jeans and a very large cowboy hat. To make sure his political leanings were perfectly clear, his shirt was emblazoned with a large round “No NAIS” sticker. He stage-whispered to his friend, “The least the S.O.B. could do is show up and listen.”
Such is the way politics break on this issue, especially in Missouri. It’s a black-and-white, friend-or-enemy state. Vilsack and the USDA? They were the enemy.
I mulled over that farmer’s incendiary comment for a few minutes and decided it was a wise decision for Vilsack to stay away. These events were supposed to be “listening sessions” and an on-site appearance by the Ag Secretary would have only served as a lightning rod for people with a confirmed and unfriendly agenda.
After hearing what everyone had to say, I thought Vilsack ought to have an opportunity to be front-and-center with his constituency on the issue. Listening to his thoughts about these one-sided sessions might help cattlemen understand his position. I contacted Caleb Weaver, Vilsack’s press secretary, and asked if he might be willing to answer a few questions.
NO problem. He asked me to send the questions to him and he would get right back to me with the answers. “Good approach,” I thought. “NAIS is such a politically sensitive subject, I don’t want to mis-read or misunderstand an answer. Better that they be well-thought out and precisely worded.”
We missed the first deadline – the questions got lost along the way. I sent them again and thought the new date might be even better since the deadline would fall just after the final listening session in Omaha. With the responses from all 14 sessions in hand, Vilsack’s answers would be even timelier.
It might help level the journalistic playing field, too. After doing back-to-back “Five Minutes with” columns on the NAIS issue and with anti-NAIS activist, Rhonda Perry, a few words from Vilsack should give my coverage of the issue some needed balance.
I waited for his responses last Thursday – until 11:39 PM. Weaver then emailed a note saying he wasn’t going to be able to deliver in time for last Friday’s Five Minutes With column. “How about next Friday (today),” I asked? NO problem, again. Meanwhile, several people from the No NAIS camp were needling me with comments that the interview would never happen.
Then came the word by email at around noon yesterday. Vilsack would be unable to answer but Dr. John Clifford, the USDA’s chief vet, would respond and his answers were attached. Now I know Dr. Clifford to be a learned and honorable man, well respected by his peers, and normally I would be delighted to interview him.
But, on this issue, he’s not Tom Vilsack.
Still, the core of my questions were aimed at finding out what the USDA had learned during these listening sessions and how the Department might use that knowledge to refine their approach to NAIS. I think you’ll understand their position after reading this column.
Note: The questions were written for Tom Vilsack and I’ve left them as they were originally submitted. The answers should be attributed to Dr. John Clifford, however.
Question (Jolley) On April 15, you announced a seven city listening tour to “hear producers’ concerns for the proposed National Animal Identification System (NAIS) as well as to hear producers’ solutions for enhancing animal disease traceability.” A few weeks later you expanded the number of stops on the tour. Why did you add more cities and what have you learned?
Answer (Clifford) We expanded the number of stops on the listening session tour to ensure we heard from a wide variety of affected parties. We wanted to provide additional opportunities for the public, and limited-resource farmers in particular, to voice their concerns about the current NAIS system and offer potential solutions.
Truth (Dickinson) The poor broke farmers are the problem. The “limited-resource” poverty people are not informed well and just need to rant and blow steam. (All farmers are limited resource people—only the government is unlimited.) We added our cheery get-to-gathers to selected sites trying to find any area where there was a positive interest in NAIS. We kept trying and there isn’t such an area. We thought locations where we generously gave “no oversight cooperative agreement funds,” — the universities and “veterinarian stakeholders” would show up in force to support USDA and NAIS, but only a few of the “bought ones” would testify. The whole thing was very discouraging. We have surely mis-guessed the livestock producers. The listening sessions were a worthless PR wreck!
Q. (Jolley) I attended the Jefferson City meeting and the speakers were overwhelmingly against NAIS in any form. From what I’ve heard about the other stops, they had similar results. Do you think the tour has resulted in a fair representation of public opinion or were the anti-NAIS forces better at “getting out the vote” so to speak?
A. (Clifford) The listening sessions were bringing interested parties together to find a solution that works for everyone, not “getting out the vote.” At the 14 listening sessions we held across the country, and online through the Federal Register, we’ve received comments from people from across the spectrum on this issue. At the listening sessions, during the afternoon, we broke into smaller groups to look at some of the common areas of concern, such as cost, confidentiality and liability, and take a hard look at some potential solutions. We’ve heard some good ideas and are looking at what kinds of changes could be made to create a traceability system that producers and other segments of industry can support.
T. (Dickinson) Really, we just didn’t have enough money to get out the vote. The “limited-resource” people just badly out numbered our educated well paid staff on the tour. We heard some good ideas when we broke into groups—-mostly they said, “Shove NAIS where the sun don’t ………….!” That was not what we wanted to hear. Basically they don’t want any kind of traceability ideas that come from USDA. That was the summary.
Q. (Jolley) Sitting the listening tour results aside for now, I know you’ve received a lot of feedback through letters and visits from stakeholders. From both a pro and an anti-NAIS point-of-view, what are they telling you?
A. (Clifford) Many of the comments focused on important issues producers have often raised such as implementation costs, impact on small-scale farmers, privacy, confidentiality, and liability. Some producers have very real concerns about what the program will cost, and how their information will be protected. Others believe that we must have a strong traceability program in place to protect our industries from animal diseases and ensure that U.S. products continue to be marketable, domestically and abroad. All of the comments are available for the public to view on Regulations.gov, and we will also post transcripts from the listening sessions on the NAIS website once they are available.
T. (Dickinson) One thing we were surprised to learn. The land owners don’t like to be called “Stakeholders” Wow, did that make the “limited-resource” people mad! One guy in Omaha from the pig association thought traceability was important. We will build on that comment to extend that thinking. If you are a computer genius you can do a serious search and find selected transcripts from the sessions. We have hidden them in a huge USDA site.
Q. (Jolley) Many have said NAIS is important to maintaining international trade. Do you agree and what can be done if a program isn’t acceptable to a large number of people in animal agriculture?
A. (Clifford) Having an effective traceability program in this country is critical to maintaining both international and domestic trade. An animal disease outbreak can cause international trading partners to reject U.S. products, and we must be able to quickly identify the affected animals and areas in order to reestablish trade. The same goes for interstate trade. The faster we can identify the counties or states affected by a disease outbreak, the faster those farms and ranches that are outside of the outbreak area can resume moving their products and animals interstate.
T. (Dickinson) We have a lot of people in NCBA, Drover Magazine and Beef Magazine convinced that beef exports are life and death to livestock survival. Really, the truth is, the US has not produced enough beef to feed the nation in several dozen years. If there were no beef exports it would not affect US beef sales at all. This is a sales tool for NAIS and getting harder daily to make people believe it.
Q. (Jolley) The biggest knock against NAIS seems to boil down to a feeling by small farmers that it’s a needlessly costly program that only benefits the large packers. Would you address their concerns here?
A. (Clifford) A strong traceability program will benefit all of American agriculture. It is designed to help protect livestock and minimize production losses and disruption after a disease outbreak. It will help us maintain and expand international markets for U.S. animals and products. It raises confidence in domestic and international consumers. Most importantly, it helps ensure that large farms and small farms can more quickly get back to business as usual after a disease outbreak.
T. (Dickinson) Yes, this is true. It will probably put the “limited resource” farmers that have no business farming anyway out of business. But the big guys that have the resources to hire lobbiests and throw some serious money around will turn out just fine.
Q. (Jolley) Rosa DeLauro, a Democratic member of the United States House of Representatives, representing Connecticut’s 3rd congressional district, acting in her role as chairwoman of the House Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, marked up the subcommittee’s fiscal year 2010 bill with proposed funding of $20.4 billion – $2 billion above fiscal year 2009 – but it contained a short section that deleted any further funding for NAIS.
According to a press release on her web site, “The bill eliminates funding for the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). After receiving $142 million in funding since fiscal year 2004, APHIS has yet to put into operation an effective system that would provide needed animal health and livestock market benefits. USDA is currently conducting a public listening tour around the country for several months to hear from stakeholders. Until USDA finishes its listening sessions and provides details as to how it will implement an effective ID system, continued investments into the current NAIS are unwarranted.”
Does that sound the death knell for NAIS or is there room to forge ahead and try to craft a compromise?
A. (Clifford) I believe there’s always room for compromise. We are beginning work immediately to gather what we’ve heard– during the listening sessions, through the Federal Register, and in our ongoing conversations with producers and other segments of industry–and craft some changes in the program to ensure it provides the traceability protection we need, but also addresses some of the concerns we’ve heard. I sincerely appreciate those who have provided feedback and ideas for how to move forward with animal traceability and we will keep everyone informed about the future direction of the program.
T. (Dickinson) This DeLauro thing is a joke. She is just moving the chairs around on the Titanic. In
government there is a word called “fungible.” It means we move the money around from one fund to the other wherever bureaucrats decide. We will compromise and do a one to one evaluation—-take one positive NAIS comment and one negative, then decide. We will do what we want to with traceability and address “some of the concerns we’ve heard.” We will move forward and you will know when it hits you what the cost will be. We are in control. You get to rant, and we hold the guillotine. Tough, Sec. Vilsack did not think this interview was important!
Q. (Jolley) And an optional question: Thousands of cattlemen in North America read Cattlenetwork. What would you like to say to them?
A. (Clifford) –No response–
T. (Dickinson) There is nothing he can say!
Bottom Line: After reading this, I would be very interested in your responses to Dr. Clifford’s answers. Please send them to me at CRJolley@msn.com and let me know if I can publish them in a future article or forward them to Tom Vilsack.