Voices of Power: Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack talks about the state of rural America and the impact of swine flu. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack talks about the USDA's efforts to help farmers in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Video by Gaby Bruna & Akira Hakuta. Editing: Akira Hakuta
By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 21, 2009

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack wants to make one thing clear, and it's that his agency is not all about farming all the time. Rather, the USDA touches on just about every critical issue affecting the United States and the globe -- from immigration to obesity, from the swine flu to developing food safety in Afghanistan.

"We like to think of the USDA as an everyday, every-way department. It's an opportunity for us to sort of emphasize that new brand," says Vilsack, Barack Obama's onetime rival for the Democratic presidential nomination who now heads the Agriculture Department.

In a recent interview, the secretary didn't seem too eager to rehash the swine flu situation but acknowledged that USDA is intensely involved in managing the crisis. After he dropped out of the 2008 presidential race, and before he signed up with the Obama administration, Vilsack was a supporter of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Vilsack served two four-year terms as governor of Iowa and takes pride in the fact that he had a "direct hand" in appointing four of the seven justices of the state Supreme Court that last month unanimously overturned a 10-year-old ban on same-sex marriage.

(See a full transcript of the interview and the Voices of Power archive page.)

Here's a portion of the interview:

Romano: Are you prepared for a pandemic flu outbreak?

Vilsack: We are preparing. We're in the process of working through the Department of Health and Human Services to have sufficient vaccines on hand. They're . . . getting the pharmaceutical industry engaged and involved in making sure that we have adequate vaccines for all kinds of flues.

Romano: What impact did the swine flu scare have on pork prices and exports?

Vilsack: Well, until the recent rebound, pork prices were headed towards a three-quarters-of-a-billion-dollar hit to an industry that was already in a little trouble. When you have 20 countries, as we currently have, that have made the decision to ban all or portions of our pork products because they're misinformed about this particular situation, that causes a problem.

Romano: USDA has been known for years as "the last plantation." It had a reputation for discrimination, and you've taken some actions.

Vilsack: Well, it's of deep concern when your department was established by Abraham Lincoln and you have a long-standing set of concerns about civil rights. We have taken aggressive action. . . . We've been working with the administration in trying to settle long-standing litigation against the department by black farmers who feel that they've been discriminated against. We have worked hard to begin the process of internally looking at our procedures in terms of our own promotion and hiring techniques to make sure that they are appropriate.

Romano: You're considering a federal proposal that would require livestock registration. There's been a lot of pushback on this in the past. Why is it necessary?

Vilsack: We're concerned about animal disease and making sure that we can contain it if it occurs and . . . maintain the integrity of the market. We're trying to trade internationally. We're trying to expand our trade opportunities. You can't do that unless you're working with international system, and . . . many of our international trading partners are requiring this. . . . It is a divisive issue. It's a tough issue."

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