Recently, The Salt had a chance to chat with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. He's held the top post at USDA since January 2009. As a former Iowa governor, he knows a thing or two about farm country and he's been open about his struggles with weight.
We covered a range of issues from nutrition rules to food stamp fraud to antibiotic use in food animals. But of course, we asked him what he's eating first.
Here are highlights from our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
AF: So, tell me what you had for breakfast today?
TV: I'd rather tell you what I had for lunch. I had a chicken salad sandwich and a Coke — a Diet Coke — and a couple of pickles.
AF: Pickles count as a vegetable?
TV: Well, there was lettuce on the sandwich.
AF: OK, that was a perfect segue into nutrition. The new nutrition rules for school food are drawing controversy. Congress has been making a lot of noise about the recommendation to limit potatoes and starchy vegetables. Why are you picking on potatoes?
TV: The dietary guidelines are basically a result of our work with the Institute of Medicine. The Institute of Medicine basically took a critical look at our school lunch program and they found that we had too much fat, too much sodium, too much sugar, not enough fruits, vegetables, low fat dairy and whole grains. What we're basically trying to do is integrate more of those foods — the fruits and vegetables, whole grain, low fat dairy — into the diet and move out sodium, sugar and fat content.
Often times, it isn't the potato, it's the way in which the potato is produced or made available to students that may create an issue.
AF: So if it's not necessarily the potato but it's the fried part — as in french fries.
TV: The guidelines and the rules are not finalized. We're in the process of looking at the comments [150,000] and the objections that have been raised. We take those comments very seriously, and our folks will come up with a set of recommendations to finalize the rules and then we'll work with school districts to implement them.
AF: So, you'll address the cooking and preparation issues?
TV: I don't want to comment on specifically what we're going to do because we're still analyzing, but I think it's important to say we know that concerns have been raised.
AF: Moving on — there's been a lot of criticism about fraud in the SNAP program — because in 35 states eligibility is only based on income and not on assets. What is the USDA doing?
TV: First of all I think it's important to note that essentially we provide the resources but states basically administer the program.
Many of the people who are currently receiving SNAP are not folks who are on cash welfare. The reality is that less than 10 percent of the SNAP beneficiaries are cash welfare recipients.
That would mean that 90 percent are not. Who are those 90 percent? Well first of all, there's senior citizens. The asset requirements could potentially disqualify a senior citizen for participating in the program because they have a car.
Some of these folks are also parents of children and these parents are working. It seems to me that we want a program that encourages work.
AF: What about people trading food stamps on Facebook and Craigslist?
TV: We've been able to cut down on those circumstances or identify them more quickly because we've converted to an EBT card — an electronic benefit transfer card — which allows us to mine data which gives us a sense of where geographically or where the facilities are that create the most significant problems. It's always an ongoing issue.
AF: Another ongoing issue is food safety. You just put out a regulation adding six more strains of E. coli to your adulterated list. What does that mean in English and why is it so important?
TV: Essentially is means that we will begin the process of testing ground beef and raw meat products to determine if there is a presence of any of those six non 0157 STECs, and if there are, then that basically will be taken out of the stream of commerce for human consumption.
AF: Why are those strains so important to keep out of the food supply?
TV: Because there is indications from the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] that somewhere in the neighborhood of 125,000 people are ill as a result of non 0157 STECs. And we estimate that roughly thirty-some thousand are directly related to beef.
It was appropriate to take this step, as we did with the Jack in the Box incident a number of years ago with [E. Coli] 0157. We hope that we can save lives by dong this.
AF: You're already getting some pushback from the beef industry for doing this. They're saying it's going to add to the cost of the product and the tests are inadequate.
TV: Which part of the beef industry? The part that's not doing the test today, or the part that is?
Beef Products is going at it in the Midwest. There are major retailers that are requiring it. And our suspicion is that there are probably a number of companies that are doing these tests because they, too, are concerned about the protection of their consumers and their product in the market.
AF: But a lot of these bugs are getting into the meat supply and scientists think government needs to do more to roll back or prevent the use of antibiotics in food animals.
TV: We're encouraging producers to understand that there is a judicious way in which antibiotics can be used and it really ought to be for the treatment of a sickness or disease. It ought not to necessarily be used to produce a faster growth of the animal.
AF: But the new rule you proposed on E. coli is because E. coli is becoming resistant. It's harder to treat in people. So why not something stronger than a guidance for industry? It's been guidance for industry for thirty-something years.
TV: That assumes that our knowledge of science is static and it assumes that people knew all about this for long periods of time. That's not necessarily the case. We're constantly learning more about pathogens. This is evolving.
AF: That leads us up to the president's budget proposal. I'm sure you've been getting a lot of phone calls about farm subsidies.
TV: I don't know that I get the phone calls. But I'm sure people in this building are getting calls.
I think it's really important for people to understand that the president's focus here is on a safety net that makes sense. And that safety net has many components, one of which is disaster assistance which he called for a continuation for the next four or five years.
AF: Are direct payments to farmers a safety net, too?
TV: With high commodity prices, they are not quite as necessary as they have been in the past. I think everybody in the field recognizes that agriculture has to share in the sacrifice that is required.
AF: But was it the farmers who bought and sold shady mortgages and caused some of this financial mess that we're in?
TV: The difference is that farmers, fortunately, are in a position right now where they're seeing the highest income they've ever seen. Even if you adjust for inflation, we're seeing income levels we haven't seen since the 1970s. Number two, we continue to see expansion of exports and expansion of new markets which creates opportunities for farmers to continue to profit.
Having said that, there are still natural disasters and markets do eventually come down. And that's why it's important and necessary to have a safety net.
AF: What's been the most challenging part of your job?
TV: I think the most challenging job I have is making the 84 percent of America that doesn't live in rural America, or the 99.9 percent of America that doesn't produce food, but consumes it, to have a full appreciation for what farmers, ranchers and producers provide and what rural America provides the rest of the country.
They don't expect much. But a "thank you" from time to time would be nice to have. That's a challenge.
AF: Thank you.
TV: You bet.
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