It is strange to be writing about politics on a food safety blog, but that is the world we are in right now.
With the announcement in December that Tom Vilsack would be President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for Secretary of Agriculture, many of us with first-hand knowledge of how he works were dismayed. Vilsack, as you likely know, served in the same role for eight years during Barack Obama’s two terms as President.
Vilsack represents the “safe” choice in terms of party
politics: Selecting either of the other two candidates for the position would
have caused fighting within the Democratic party. So, President-elect Biden
decided to avoid that conflict and nominated Vilsack, despite wide-ranging
opposition to his selection from a variety of groups and individuals.
"USDA building" by brittreints is licensed under CC BY 2.0
The grapevine talk says Vilsack was very good at raising money for the administration and will return to doing that again. Real-world history displays incidents few can forget: how he fired Shirley Sherrod; and a disdain for minorities, and small farmers and agriculture-related businesses that he was never able to hide. That disdain spilled over into FSIS rulemaking as well, with little to no consideration taken for the impacts on small and medium businesses.
The colossal disappearance of small plants during his last tenure set the industry up with a very weak fortress to use in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic over the last year. This time around, small processors should anticipate more of the same: a push for excessive regulation and oversight, which in turn will result in further erosion of their population.
Large processors will have a different experience with Vilsack in charge — if not an equally uncomfortable one. Processors “with money” should expect to see the FSIS undersecretary — with FSIS personnel in tow — knocking on their doors to solicit donations to the party at his behest. We can also expect him to negotiate settlements with the unions, who in turn make large donations to the party, and so forth.
The key for everyone at this point is safety in numbers. I am recommending to all our clients that they become members of an applicable, national trade organization. It is going to be critical for everyone that our voices be heard. We R Food Safety! has been active in working with the American Association of Meat Processors (AAMP) and will continue to support AAMP; additionally, I have directed our team to reach out and become more involved with other trade organization partners as well. The goal is to strengthen and enhance proactive dialog with those in Washington.
We R Food Safety! is not a lobbying group, and I don’t intend for us ever to become one. Nevertheless, we are going to take a much more active approach in supporting those that are working directly in Washington as a result of this Cabinet nomination.
During Vilsack’s first stint as Secretary of Agriculture, we
did see evidence that he dislikes negative press intensely, as he offered to
rehire Sherrod after the public outcry. With that in mind, while we hope we
don’t have only negativity to discuss through Vilsack’s tenure, my team of
experts and I will continue to write and advise on food safety through a
variety of publications and outlets, with the goal of making sure that what
comes out of Washington supports the industry and the American consumer.