WASHINGTON, March 9, 2016 – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack promised today that government lawyers will involve pork industry leaders in discussions that could lead to settlement of a suit by the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) that could negate an agreement between two pork producer groups over the use of assessments for promotion and research.
Speaking at the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) in Washington Wednesday, Vilsack’s remarks amended his testimony to the House Agriculture Committee last week that the industry had been involved in getting to settlement negotiations. The testimony drew criticism from industry leaders.
“I may have gotten a little ahead of my skis here and may have mischaracterized the conversations,” he said. “The conversations have been about what is consequence of losing and what could be worked out that would be both beneficial to the industry and also would prevent us from an adverse court decision.” He said discussion of a potential settlement arose from “preliminary motions within the case which suggest that the courts may have some serious concerns about this.”
Saying that USDA has been “directed by the court to see if there is any common ground,” Vilsack added, “The pork industry we probably need to get more involved in these conversations than we have. I have directed our team to make sure they are fully briefed on what’s going on.”
HSUS sued in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in 2012, alleging that USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service unlawfully approved the Pork Board’s agreement to pay the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) $60 million over 20 years for its trademarked “Pork: The Other White Meat” slogan. Vilsack said the suit “raises the question about whether it’s appropriate for checkoff dollar to be used for something no longer in public use.” The Pork Board’s delegate body Saturday urged Vilsack to exhaust his legal options rather than settling.
His comments came in response to a question from BPC Senior Vice President G. William Hoagland, who moderated “A Conversation on Food and Nutrition” among Vilsack and former Secretaries of Agriculture Dan Glickman and Ann M. Veneman.
“If we did a better job reaching out to these groups [and] if we had that kind of communication we probably would have less conflict in agriculture,” Vilsack said. Conversely, Glickman said, agriculture needs to recognize that saying “If we grow it, they will buy it” is no longer valid.
Vilsack also reiterated his opposition to mandatory package labeling of genetically engineered ingredients in food but said some requirement for disclosure apart from package labels was needed to pass the Senate. The solution, he said, is “a uniform set of standards where the consumers know where to look for the information they want but doesn’t act like a warning label. That’s the issue.” To be “much more helpful to the marketplace and to consumers,” national policy should not require moving away from current labeling philosophy. “We label for two reasons: one for nutrition, with calories, and so forth, and the other for known hazards. If you start labeling for a process by which products are produced, there’s an endless stream.”
Veneman and Glickman endorsed Vilsack’s position, with Veneman complimenting Vilsack for “the process you have been going through to bring people together” on biotech food labeling. “There is a lot of diversity of ideas about how to get this done -- is it mandatory? is it not? how to get it through the Congress. We need a compromise on this that will create the kind of information consumers say they want.”
The three agreed also that Congress should move quickly on reauthorization of school lunch and other child nutrition programs, with Vilsack saying that controversial new standards for nutrition content in USDA-financed school feeding programs have been “an extraordinary success.” Students now are eating more fruits and vegetables as a result of the standards, he said.
Glickman said he is optimistic that child nutrition legislation can be completed before Congress adjourns for the political conventions “as long as it stays out of the presidential debates.”
Veneman said she regretted that, following enactment of the more restrictive lunch standards, “feeding children has become a partisan, divisive issue. We need to reverse that.”
It would be “a tragic mistake” to separate food stamps – the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP – from commodity programs in congressional consideration of farm bills, Vilsack said. “If you separate the two you, would not have the capacity to get a bill through.” Despite “all the argumentation and hyperventilation and vitriol” in politics today, Glickman added, recognition of the link between farmers and people who need food assistance persists.