The nation's top agriculture official sought to refute concerns of House Republicans Thursday over whether or not the Biden administration was taking enough steps to allow the country's pork processors to operate at expedited speeds.

At a House Ag Committee hearing today on the state of the livestock industry, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the committee errors during the process to write the rules for the New Swine Inspection System prevented six facilities from functioning with the faster line speeds allowed under the regime. 

“The reason we're under an injunction is because the Trump administration did not put into the record any information that they have about worker safety, for some reason they chose not to do that,” Vilsack said. “That's more than a technicality. That's a fatal flaw.”

A judge threw out the line speed portion of the NSIS in March, but stayed the order for 90 days to give USDA time to weigh its options. USDA opted not to appeal the ruling despite industry calls to do so. More than 70 members of Congress have also sent a letter to USDA pressing for a way to prevent six plants from slowing down. 

Vilsack told lawmakers that USDA has been working with one of the affected facilities to come up with a proposal, potentially a structure for a waiver, that the other 5 facilities could follow for the next 12 months. 

The issue was just one of many topics Vilsack discussed at a wide-ranging hearing - which also included testimony from Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and representatives from livestock industry groups - that brought out a number of different opinions on livestock issues like meat processing consolidation, beef market price transparency and lamb imports from the U.K.

The conversation also drifted to the USDA’s proposed $500 million investment toward building new meat and poultry processing capacity. In response to a question from Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., Vilsack said USDA is looking at providing some operating capital for new packing facilities under the program

“I don't want to prejudge this, but there may very well be a component of this that looks not just at entities that need capital to build, but those who might need assistance in the first early stages of operation to get their feet on the ground,” he said. “So we're structuring this in a way that potentially provides some level of assistance and help, utilizing potentially other programs at USDA to do that.”

Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, told Vilsack that some small producers were worried that small plants funded through this program would end up being sold to major meatpackers within 25 years and suggested a payback provision if that were to take place.

Vilsack said the USDA is analyzing comments submitted on the program, and concerns like those voiced by Johnson and Axne are being considered.

“I think we have to structure the program in a way that we can justify to taxpayers that their resources have been used in a thoughtful and inappropriate way,” Vilsack said. “And I would certainly hope that whatever structure we put together would be able to meet that standard and continue to meet that standard.”

Vilsack said he hopes to have a framework for the program by the end of the year with initial funds being distributed in 2022.

Industry stakeholders have been pressing for expanded processing capacity as well as steps to improve price transparency in the beef cattle sector. Several organizations have pushed for a beef industry contract library similar to what is currently operational in the pork industry, and Vilsack said USDA was working a report to study the issue.

“I don't want to anticipate and expect what the report is ultimately going to conclude, but I think to the extent that we can create more information for producers about what contracts ought to be, what contracts are,” he said. “The more transparency, I think the stronger the market is.”

Vilsack expects the report out in December.

During the hearing, Vilsack expressed agreement with lawmakers who complained that the Food and Drug Administration was slowing down the commercialization of gene-edited animals because of its extensive regulatory process.

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However, he said the Department of Health and Human Services didn’t finalize a memorandum of understanding that was produced in the final days of the Trump administration to shift some regulatory responsibilities to USDA. 

“I think there are ways in which we have to work collaboratively with our friends at FDA to make sure that our regulatory system is able to respond quickly enough, and be able to keep, keep aligned or keep pace with the … pace of change,” Vilsack told Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo. 

The majority of House Agriculture Committee members, including Chairman David Scott, D-Ga., and ranking GOP member, Glenn “GT” Thompson, signed a letter Thursday to USDA and FDA that called on the agencies to work together to “modernize” the regulatory process for biotech animals. 

“A costly, protected regulatory system will continue to stifle important agricultural innovations,” the letter says.

Another topic of discussion at the hearing was the reopening of the U.S. market to lamb meat from the U.K. The U.S. stopped importing lamb meat from the island nation in 1989, after the first outbreak of Mad Cow Disease. 

Brad Boner, vice president of the American Sheep Industry Association, testified to the committee that the possibility is worrying for U.S. sheep producers. 

“Science-based standards are important, but equal in importance should be placed on reciprocal access to foreign markets,” Boner said. “We continue to ask that export opportunities for American Lamb be prioritized before further import markets are opened.”

Vilsack said that the USDA will be following World Organisation for Animal Health recommendations and requirements when approaching lamb imports from the U.K.

“I think we have to talk the talk and walk the walk and that's I think what you're going to see here,” he said. 

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