New Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns began his tenure yesterday by pledging to get American beef exports moving again to Japan, a lucrative market that has been closed to U.S. producers since the discovery of mad cow disease in this country in December 2003.
The former Nebraska governor called ending Japan's ban on U.S. beef "my top priority" as he took over for former secretary Ann M. Veneman. Johanns, confirmed by the Senate on Thursday, said he would receive several briefings on the Agriculture Department's handling of the threat of mad cow disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy.
Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, left, greets Gerald Willis, special assistant to the chief at USDA.
(Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)
_____Mad Cow Disease_____
Canada Finds Third Case of Mad Cow Disease (The Washington Post, Jan 12, 2005)
Mixed Reaction on Canadian Beef (The Washington Post, Jan 4, 2005)
Canada Is Checking Another Animal for Mad Cow Disease (The Washington Post, Dec 31, 2004)
U.S. to Reopen Border for Import of Some Canadian Cattle (The Washington Post, Dec 30, 2004)
USDA Rules Out Mad Cow Disease in Animal (The Washington Post, Nov 24, 2004)
"The goal should be to make decisions about trade based on good science, mixed in with some good old common sense," Johanns, 54, told reporters after a 10-minute speech to USDA employees. "I will do everything I can to restore trade with Japan on the beef issue."
The United States is negotiating with Japan as federal officials prepare to relax import restrictions on Canadian cattle in March. Such trade was banned after the discovery of mad cow disease in Canada in May 2003. The USDA agreed to end the ban last year before new reports surfaced of two more Canadian cows developing the fatal disease.
Japan was once the largest buyer of U.S. beef, accounting for $1.4 billion of the $3.86 billion in U.S. beef exports in 2003, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. Japan had its own mad cow crisis in 2001, with beef sales declining sharply before the government began testing every animal for the disease.
The Japanese market is important not only because of its size, but also because consumers favor cuts that are less popular with Americans, said Gregg Doud, chief economist at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "[W]hat happens is, if we can't export those cuts, we end up grinding them into hamburger and consuming them domestically at a lower value," Doud said.
Johanns, an Iowa native who grew up on a dairy farm and served as mayor of Lincoln, Neb., said he has not determined which top aides at USDA he will ask to stay on. He is so new to the job that a guard at department headquarters kept a photocopied picture of Johanns on her desk yesterday so she would not mistakenly turn him away.
The department that he is taking over is one of the government's largest, with 98,000 federal employees. Its activities include promoting agricultural production and trade, running programs such as food stamps and school lunches, maintaining national forests and conducting food safety inspections.
"We do so much to impact the lives of Americans," Johanns told USDA employees, "but there is much work ahead of us."
Some of that will be protecting the department's interests on Capitol Hill. Congress is taking up the farm bill this year, and the billions of dollars in subsidies it provides to farmers, at a time of rising budget deficits and pledges to restrict domestic spending.
Johanns also will have to deal with continuing fallout from a landmark court settlement with African American farmers in 1999. The settlement ended a class-action lawsuit in which the farmers contended that they had been denied loans and other aid by regional USDA bureaus for decades when white farmers had not been.
An independent report last year found that the USDA had denied payments to almost 90 percent of the 94,000 black farmers who had sought restitution for discrimination in a process set up by a federal court. A black farmers advocacy group called for the removal of Veneman last summer.