Voices of Power: Tom Vilsack

INTERVIEW OF TOM VILSACK, Secretary of Agriculture

By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday May 21, 2009

Chapter 1: Vilsack on Tainted Food

MS. ROMANOWelcome Tom Vilsack, President Obama's Secretary of Agriculture. Thanks for joining us today.

SECRETARY VILSACK: Happy to be here.

Ms. ROMANO: USDA touches all Americans across the board, and it has its hands in a lot of different things. So let's just start with some of the things you're doing.

Recently, we had some issues with tainted peanut butter. Before that, it was spinach, and then before that, it was tomatoes. Is the Federal Government doing enough to secure food safety in the country?

VILSACK: Well, I--I applaud President Obama for taking this issue very seriously and understanding the significance of it and establishing the inner-agency work--working group between myself and Secretary Sibelius. We are working together to create a better system, to--to seek improvements.

We want a consistent philosophy throughout the Federal Government that's focused on prevention. We'll be looking at and soliciting input from the experts and from people who are impacted by these decisions, but we want to take a look at our recall authority, whether or not we have sufficient and adequate recall authority in the event of a circumstance or an event; are we communicating as effectively as we should; when FDA finds out something, does USDA find out about it immediately and vice versa; does the CDC notify the FDA and--and the Ag Department when--when they uncover something.

When you talk to a mother who's lost a son because they ate a tainted hamburger or you talk to a father who's lost a daughter because of a vegetable that wasn't what it needed to be, you understand and appreciate there's a human price that's paid when--when food is not as safe as it needs to be.

ROMANO: Does the government have enough food inspectors? That was something that we heard complaints about during the peanut butter scare.

VILSACK: Well, I think--you know, I can't speak for the FDA. You'd have to ask that question to the Health and Human Services Secretary, but I will tell you that we are--at USDA, we have inspectors at every processing facility, and we have the capacity, if we see something we don't like, to walk out of that facility, and as soon as we walk out, the activities have to shut down. So we take that job very seriously.

We inspect every carcass, and we're in the process now of understanding more about pathogens, more about what the inspection systems ought to involve, how you can establish inspection systems that focus on the most severe risks.

ROMANO: USDA has been known for years as 'the last plantation.' It had a reputation for discrimination, and you've taken some actions. Can you tell us about that a little bit?

VILSACK: Well, it's--it's of deep concern when your department that was established by Abraham Lincoln and you have a longstanding set of concerns about civil rights. We have taken aggressive action, and I think it's an important message for us to send.

First, we've been working with the administration in trying to settle longstanding litigation against the Department by black farmers who feel that they've been discriminated against and, indeed, many, many have--thousands of them have--to try to provide a measure of justice that's--that's appropriate.

Secondly, we have worked hard to take a--to begin the process of internally looking at our procedures in terms of our own promotion and hiring techniques and procedures to make sure that they are appropriate, and we're also taking a look at our programs, how they are basically handled and dealt with, to make sure that we don't continue this--this trend that has been so disturbing for some of the years.

And finally, we're taking a look at reviewing the cases that were reviewed in the previous eight years. There were many, many cases filed, many complaints filed, very few findings of discrimination. We want to make sure that there was as thorough a review of those files as--as appropriate.

ROMANO: One of the first things that you did when you arrived was jackhammer a piece of asphalt outside and create a People's Garden. Tell us a little bit about that.

VILSACK: Well, that's a great project, and it's--it's a project which is designed to--to promote more nutritious eating on the part of Americans by growing fruits and vegetables and herbs, and it allowed us the opportunity to graphically portray in a symbolic way the importance of being able to produce your own food and have more nutritious food.

It's part of our effort to try to reshape, particularly among children, the nutritional value of the meals that they get.

We're going to hopefully see an expansion of that particular garden project to include most of the USDA grounds, and we've already begun to see people stop, take a look at the grounds, take a look at the garden, begin to ask questions about it, and we've seen, obviously, with the First Lady's White House Garden Initiative, an explosion of interest on the part of Americans to basically grow their own food.

This is an important connection for people, so that they understand what it takes to produce the food on their plate. When that happens, I think you have a greater respect for those who produce it. You understand how much hard work is involved

ROMANO: Now, when Michelle Obama planted her organic garden, did she--did she come seek your advice?

VILSACK: Well, I think that she didn't need my advice.

She has a lot of good people working at the White House, but she was kind enough to invite me over there to watch some of the youngsters plant the seeds, and we had a--we had a great time.

And I think what's really wonderful about this project is how the First Lady and the President have incorporated themselves in the Washington community. I've heard many, many people comment from this community, how great it is to have a President and First Lady who feel that they reside here, their children reside here, they want to be part of the community.

ROMANO: Can organic farming, homegrown farming replace industrial farming?

VILSACK: You know, interesting thing about the Census that was done recently of U.S. Agriculture, it showed 108,000 new initiatives and new entrepreneurial opportunities--starting in--in the country. These are small farmers, probably selling a couple thousand dollars' worth of product.

It is a growth opportunity for agriculture. It's a--it's a way in which we can re-populate rural communities. It's a way in which USDA can be engaged by promoting community-supported agriculture, by promoting farmers' markets and a new take to rural development, which is important, and we'd like to see those small operations migrate into a mid-sized operation. So we're going to look for ways to link them up with local consumers and institutional buyers.

So you're going to see a lot more support for that kind of activity.

I think, frankly, we're going to need all of our agriculture, all kinds of agriculture, and the reason for this is that, again, remember it's not just the 300 million Americans that we need to be concerned about. It's the 6 billion people who live on this earth, and the reality is that number is going to continue to grow.

ROMANO: Can you bridge the conflict, though, between the environmentalists and the industrial producers?

VILSACK: Well, you know, I think you have to recognize that there are very passionate feelings on all sides of this, but I think what USDA has to do is it has to be supportive of all types of agriculture. Asking me to choose between organic and production agriculture is sort of like asking me which of my two boys I love the most. I love them both.

ROMANO: EDIT How does your support of ethanol fit with this administration's focus on wind and solar power?

VILSACK: Well, it's--it's a complementary strategy. The President was quite clear during my first and only job interview when--when I was applying for this job, so to speak. He said encourage the biofuel industry because it will help us break our addiction to foreign oil, and that is a very important goal, both economically and environmentally and from a national security standpoint for this country.

The way you break the addiction is by having greater efficiencies with the fuel that you use and by developing alternative sources other than fossil fuels. That's where the biofuels comes into play, and we're looking at new second- and third-generation feedstocks that will dramatically expand, in an environmentally friendly way, the amount of ethanol that can be produced in this country.

It is a great growth opportunity for rural communities, and it is an important opportunity for us to grow those kinds of jobs where farmers not only benefit from production of agricultural products but also the processing of them, and it is a way, again, in which we can continue to strengthen rural America.

There's 70 million people who live in rural America. They have a serious role to play not only in biofuels and renewable energy but also in climate change. While they may be a small part of the problem, they are a huge part of the solution, and as we talk about climate change, as we talk about new clean jobs, clean energy jobs, agriculture needs to be at the forefront of that.

Chapter 1 close

Chapter Two : Vilsack on USDA's Efforts in Afghanistan, Pakistan

ROMANO: Tell us USDA's role in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

VILSACK: This is--relevant to the notion of that we're an everyday, every-way Department----most people would not recognize that we have an integral role to play in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In fact, I met with the Afghan minister today, and we're talking about ways in which we can provide technical assistance on water issues, technical assistance on irrigation, on credit, on marketing, ways in which we can work with the State Department, USAID, to--to build a stronger, more vibrant agricultural sector and economy that isn't dependent on poppies but is dependent upon grains, fruits and vegetables, and horticulture.

When you have that kind of stability in rural Afghanistan or Pakistan, then there's much less of a breeding ground for recruiting terrorists to the Taliban or al-Qaeda, and it makes those two countries safer, which obviously will make us safer.

So this is USDA. We're working in a way that people would not necessarily think.

We also had our first-ever meeting of the G8 ag ministers in Italy several weeks ago, and we talked about food security issues, and once again, this is USDA helping with the State Department to put a different face to the rest of the world. America--President Obama has been very clear about this, that we need to use all the tools in our toolbox to--to persuade countries to do the right thing.

Food security: focusing on making sure that food is available; that people have the capacity to produce their own food or through trade, supplement what they can't produce or through food assistance, make sure that they can feed their people. Access: make sure that there's road systems and distribution systems to get the food to where it's needed; and also, making sure that it's properly utilized, that they have the power, the refrigeration, the electricity, the knowledge of how to cook and prepare and store food.

All of that is part of food security, and America is helping to lead an international discussion on that, so, again, USDA involved every way and every day.

MS. ROMANO: When you talk about helping a country like Afghanistan, is that financially? Is that through manpower or just advisory?

VILSACK: It's--it's a combination.


VILSACK: We--we have surplus commodities that we can make available to the country, which they in turn can sell in the open market and generate resources, and in the case of Afghanistan, they might take vegetable oil from America, which helps our producers. They might sell it, generate cash, and purchase wheat seed, which helps their producers, and provide it on a discounted basis.

It's also technical assistance. We have people that know a lot about water, a lot about irrigation systems, a lot about forests, and so those folks can go over in teams and work with Afghan--our Afghan counterparts and their Pakistani counterparts and basically create a cadre of people in those two countries that can then train the trainers, you know, and you can--they can train their--their own people, and eventually, you have an extension, just like we have Extension Service here. You have an extension of knowledge out into the countryside.

And once again, these are small farmers. They may have two or three acres of ground that they're farming, that they have the capacity with improved knowledge to produce more, become self-sufficient for their family, and then have a little extra to be able to sell on the open market. That's how you create wealth. That's how you create an alternative to poppies.


MS. ROMANO: When did you first meet the President?

VILSACK: Well, I first met him in Iowa. Actually, no, I take that back.

ROMANO: When he was campaigning?

VILSACK: I take that back.

The first time I met the President was at the White House Correspondents Dinner. I was invited to it when I was Governor of Iowa.

I met him just after he was elected as a Senator. David Axelrod who did my media also did--obviously did the President's media, and David wanted to make sure the two of us met.

ROMANO: And did David try to get you on board before you signed up with Hillary Clinton?

VILSACK: Well, my relationship with Senator Clinton goes back. When--when I ran for office in 1998, I was 23 points behind, and the only people that paid much attention to me, besides Roy Romer, who was the Chair of the Democratic Governors Association, was Paul Wellstone and Hillary Clinton.

ROMANO: Obesity in the U.S., is it a national problem?

VILSACK: Absolutely. It's a national problem but particularly as it relates to children.

We have actually two issues with children. We have too many children who are hungry and too many children who are obese and overweight, and we have to address both problems, and they're actually twins. And--and for--and in many ways, they stem from the same set of issues and circumstances.

We need to do a better job of educating young parents about the important nutritional needs of their children, which is why I teamed up with Sesame Street and why the First Lady has also teamed up with Sesame Street, to talk about more nutritious eating and--and exercise.

We need to do a better job of working with day care facilities, childcare facilities, to make sure that snacks are nutritious.

We need to work very closely with schools, both in terms of the quality of their school breakfast and school lunch programs and the availability of those programs, removing the stigma from participating in those programs, and also taking a look at what's in the vending machines, making sure particularly at the elementary and middle school that what we are--what we are providing, both in portion size and in terms of calorie intake are--are appropriate, and we need to--we need to do a better job of--of locating grocery stores in both inner-city and rural communities and the food deserts.

I talked to the Grocers Association today about that issue. I think that many grocers are prepared to help begin to try to figure out why we have so many convenience stores and fast-food locations in urban centers and rural communities, but we can't have a grocery store.

So we end up with poor people spending more money for food and food that may be not as nutritious as they could if they had access to fresh fruits and vegetables, so a lot of opportunities there.

We need to continue to expand farmers markets and community-supported agriculture, because that is how you link those locally grown fruits and vegetables, and those entrepreneurs I talked about earlier, to consumers locally. So there's as lot of work that we need to do.

MS. ROMANO: So what I hear you saying is that the Federal Government has an important role to play in the choices people make on--on eating healthy.

VILSACK: Let me say this. I think every single one of us has an important role to play.

I think it's an individual responsibility, but I think it's also a government responsibility. We provide assistance to schools for school lunch and school breakfast programs. We provide assistance with our food assistance program, our SNAP and our WIC programs. All of those can be directed in a more nutritious way and should be.

This is a crisis, a health care crisis that every single one of us get impacted by. It makes our economy less competitive. It ends up spending a lot of our discretionary resources that might otherwise be spent for college expense or buying a home.

We can't continue to spend 16, 17 percent of our gross domestic product on health care. Part of that is preventing illness and disease, and that links to wellness, exercise, and also more nutritional eating.

ROMANO: Let me ask you an Iowa question.


ROMANO: Iowa is now the third state to legalize gay marriage. What's your reaction to that, and is that going to change the political landscape of your state?

VILSACK: Well, I'm--I will say that I'm very proud of the Iowa Supreme Court. I should have to say that because I had a direct hand in appointing four of the seven justices of the Supreme Court, and the fifth justice I appointed to the court, the trial court into an appellate court. So I--in a sense, it's--it's kind of my court.

I think they did the right thing, and they made the right decision. It was a state constitutional issue involving equal protection and privileges and immunities. I think it obviously changed the--the nature and direction of the debate and conversation in this country, and I think it--I don't know that it will necessarily change the politics of Iowa.

I think Iowa has had a progressive history. We--we--our Supreme Court issued a case long before the Dred Scott case that sort of set the table for that.

We had the first woman admitted to the Bar Association in America who came from Iowa, Arabella Babb Mansfield, actually from my hometown of Mount Pleasant.

So there's--there's a tradition here of progressive thought process in terms of civil rights, and I'm--I'm proud that that tradition continued.

MS. 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: Well, I think we're concerned about animal disease and making sure that we can--we can contain it if it--if it occurs and making sure that we maintain the integrity of the market.

As we have seen with BSE and mad cow, one cow can cause a significant economic disruption 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 the international system, many of our international trading partners are requiring this, and I think a lot of the industry has already bought into this; the pork industry, the poultry industry in particular.

It is a divisive issue. It's a tough issue. It's a hard issue because there's so many differences and distinctions between livestock in parts of the country. We're engaged in a listening process to try to figure out if they are creative ways that we can improve the program.

Here's the dilemma. Congress is threatening to reduce or ultimately eliminate the funding for the program, which would mean that we might not have any--any system at all, voluntary or mandatory, and I think that exposes us, our markets, to some--some serious disruption.

So I think it's incumbent upon us to see if there's a way in which we can put the pieces back together, so that we have greater compliance than we have today. Thirty percent of farmers participating is not enough.

ROMANO: And that's voluntary right now?

SECRETARY VILSACK: Currently, it's voluntary. Some states have made it mandatory. Some states have actually passed laws that say they're not under any circumstance going to be engaged and involved in a system of this nature. That's the challenge. But at the end of the day, we have a study that--recently from Kansas State that suggested that you could have a $13-billion hit to your markets if you don't have a system that works. That's a pretty sizeable hit.

And here's what's really important. When you look at trade, agriculture has a trade surplus for the United States, somewhere between 12- and $13 billion.

Well, an incident could completely eliminate that trade surplus, and that's wealth creation for rural communities. It's wealth creation opportunities for farm families. It's the capacity for us to keep enough family farmers, so that we don't end up with a circumstance with only a handful of people producing our food.

Close Chapter Three

Chapter 4 Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack talks about the state of rural America and the impact of swine flu.

ROMANO: Let's talk about swine flu a little bit. I know that's also--

SECRETARY VILSACK: Oh, we're not going to talk about swine flu.

MS. ROMANO: Oh, it's part of your portfolio.

SECRETARY VILSACK: No, that's not the name of it. If you want to talk about H1N1, I'd be happy to talk about that.

ROMANO: Okay. H1N1. And I know that's part of your portfolio. Tell me, what precautions are going on in the Federal Government and the agency to prevent Mexican migrant workers from bringing the flu into the country.

VILSACK: Well, we're working very closely with the Department of Homeland Security to make sure that as folks come in not just from Mexico, for that matter from any part of the world, that they are checked and assured that we're not encouraging a spreading of that flu because we know that it's something that goes from human to human.

We know it's not a food-borne illness, which is what we're trying to do at USDA is to make sure that there's a correct understanding of what this is, because there are family farmers who struggle every single day to make a living, and when this is mischaracterized or misunderstood by consumers here or abroad, it impacts and affects the bottom line for those family farmers.

So we want to make sure people understand: You can't get it by eating pork, you can't get it by--by cooking pork. But we are talking precautions at the border to make sure that as folks come in from this country. As other countries are doing with our citizens as they go into other countries, we're checking to make sure that people who are with flu-like symptoms are not--are not necessarily going to spread the disease.

ROMANO: We haven't heard a whole lot about the flu in the last couple of weeks, and my question is: Is it a real threat, or did the media just hype it up?

VILSACK: Well, I think the reason that it's a concern, and will continue to be a concern, are two-- there are two reasons.

One, the nature of flu is peaks and valleys, and so you can never be assured that you've got it totally contained; and secondly, the nature of this particular flu, because of its unique characteristics, there wasn't a vaccine. There wasn't, quote/unquote, "a cure" for it developed, and so, therefore, it caused a lot of concern.

And the fact that younger people were being impacted and affected by it to the point where they were dying in a number of countries gave us real pause for concern.

ROMANO: What impact did the scare have on pork prices and production in the country?

VILSACK: Well, until the recent rebound, pork prices were headed towards a three-quarters-of-a-billion-dollar hit to--to an industry that was already in a little trouble, and the reason for this is that 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.

The export market is a very important aspect of our business.

We affect not only 300 million American consumers, but we--we affect consumers all over the world, and so we're struggling today to work with the U.S. Trade Representative and our--our State Department to try to convince ambassadors and ministers that there is no problem with American point, that there should not be a ban on pork, that the market should be open and free.

ROMANO: How is that going?

SECRETARY VILSACK: Well, we've made some progress in Central America. A number of Central American countries have reversed their bans.

ROMANO: Has China reversed its--

VILSACK: Not yet. We're still--we're still struggling with China. We're still working with Russia.

Those trade negotiations and relationships are--are complicated and oftentimes intertwined with a number of other issues. But we continue to work, we continue to stress in very strong terms that there's no scientific basis for their decision.

ROMANO: There are about 65 million pigs on farms in this country. Do we have adequate testing procedures in place to--to test these animals to see if they're infected?

VILSACK: Oh, I think we do, and we're in the process of--of expanding our--our detection mechanisms.

Part of USDA's responsibility and job is to find out about these new illnesses and to make sure that we're in the process of being able to detect them as quickly as possible, and we've provided some very direct advice to our pork producers to use biosafety surveillance techniques, to--to ensure that pigs that are not healthy are separated, to make sure there isn't a transfer of hogs that are not--not in good shape, to make sure that people--that there's not a--exposure to people from hogs that are sick.

In some way, shape, or form, and whether it's immigration--you started off with immigration. We haven't talked much about energy, a little bit about energy; the nutrition, rural development, economic development, jobs, food safety, we are involved in a great--a great deal.

ROMANO: You're on a listening tour right now, I understand-- on a lot of different fronts, but one of them is in rural America?

VILSACK: That's correct. Well, 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 for the Department.

As we go out to rural communities, we are talking to them about the stimulus program, the Recovery and Reinvestment Act and what it is basically helping to do in rural America.

We talk about the fact that there are resources for broadband, expansion of broadband. There are resources for new housing opportunities, resources to deal with wastewater and water treatment issues, which are important in rural communities, as well as resources to help build everything from libraries and day care centers and fire stations to helping to equip the local police department with new squad cars--basically everything that can help build a strong, vibrant rural community.

And the reason that's important to America's farmers and ranchers is that we now see a substantial percentage of those farmers and ranchers needing off-farm income in order to be able to maintain the farm.

And so when you build strong rural communities, you create job opportunities for the operators, the farmers and ranchers themselves or their spouses.

SECRETARY VILSACK: You know, it's interesting. I think people are optimistic and hopeful, and one of the reasons they're optimistic and hopeful is because of what USDA and President Obama is doing to support the biofuels industry.

They're very appreciative of the fact that we have an inter-agency working group trying to figure out how to market biofuel more effectively to consumers in America, and they recognize that this gives American farmers and ranchers an opportunity to profit not just from the production of agricultural products but also the processing of them, and that's how you add value.

They are very optimistic in terms of seeing the stimulus go into effect and USDA's portion of it having an immediate stimulus effect. A lot of times, people don't realize that when you provide food assistance to families, that money is spent into the economy, 97 percent of it within 30 days.

And so when you put $20 billion of additional SNAP payments for food assistance, those resources will get into the economy quickly, and we know for every $5 we spend and invest in that program, it generates $9.20 of economic activity.

So they're beginning to see the impact and effect of the stimulus right away.

ROMANO: Well, it sounds like you have your fingers in every pot.

VILSACK: Well, I've challenged anybody and I challenge you. There is not a domestic issue that you can name that we're not engaged in some way, shape, or form, and whether it's immigration--you started off with immigration. We haven't talked much about energy, a little bit about energy; the nutrition, rural development, economic development, jobs, food safety, we are involved in a great--a great deal.

ROMANO: Well, thank you very much for joining us.

VILSACK: Thank you. You bet. Thanks.


© The Washington Post Company