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Vilsack announces support for turkey producers

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, in an effort to aid an ailing farm economy, will buy $60 million of turkeys for nutrition programs, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Tuesday.

The buyout also includes $30 million in walnuts, $25 million for pork and $2 million for lamb for federal food nutrition programs. Vilsack made the announcement while testifying before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture.

The bonus commodity purchases comes on top of earlier announced purchases of 200 million pounds of non-fat dry milk for school and low-income nutrition programs.

The latest purchases are "to assist those groups are who struggling through some difficult times," Vilsack said Tuesday afternoon in a telephone news conference with reporters.

The aid to turkey producers should largely affect Minnesota, which leads the nation in turkeys raised and in pounds produced. In 2006, Minnesota reported 45 million turkeys and 1.2 billion pounds produced, with a value of production of $569 million.

Vilsack also announced the extension of the deadline for several program sign-ups, work in progress for mandatory animal identification and the formation of a task force to study food safety.

The former Iowa governor also testified to the panel on President Barack Obama's 2010 budget for agriculture, and told reporters that the administration's push to open the 2008 Farm Bill to cap farm subsidies was only a starting point, not a line in the sand.

U.S. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, DFL-7th District, has been pushing for the government's food safety programs to be housed at USDA, which has more staff and experience with meat and poultry. Currently, the Food and Drug Administration inspects all else.

The Obama administration will form a food safety working group with representatives from the Department of Health and Human Services, FDA and USDA as soon as HHS and FDA heads are confirmed by the Senate, Vilsack said.

"The president has indicated a real concern about our food safety system by the establishment of a working group," Vilsack said. "There have been staff meetings already ... When those two (HHS and FDA) individuals are confirmed, it's my intention to sit down with the commissioner (of FDA) and the secretary (of HHS) and talk about next steps."

Vilsack said it's fairly clear that "we need to discuss the philosophy of food safety, whether or not we can reach agreement that the philosophy should be driven by the need to prevent food-borne illness as best we can as opposed to or solely looking at mitigating it."

The working group will also discuss ways of better coordinating the activities of FDA relating to food and USDA "so that we're always aware of what each knows," he said. "I also suspect we'll talk about whether USDA has sufficient authority to take steps to protect the citizens of this country in the event there is a problem in terms of how products are recalled and how extensive the recalls need to be and how specific they need to be."

Organization structure will be on the table, he said, but that won't occur until more fundamental issues are resolved. "You've got to have the right philosophy, you've got to have the right focus, and a lot of work needs to be done on a risk-based process."

Obama is expecting reports from the working group every 90 days, Vilsack said. "There's an expectation we get done fairly quickly."

The Ag secretary backed off from pledging support for a mandatory animal ID system, which would help track the origin of food-borne illnesses, citing privacy issues, but he did say movement in that direction is needed.

It's also an issue for Peterson, but he's willing to go slow, Vilsack said.

"Chairman Peterson indicated a desire and interest in proceeding with the possibility of a mandatory system in one form or another ... or a discontinuance of the financing of the current system," he said. "He indicated he was not interested in doing that unless he had support from myself and from (Senate Ag Committee) Chairman (Tom) Harkin."

What Vilsack wants to do is set a condition for moving to the next step toward mandatory animal ID to have opponents and proponents sit down and discuss the issue.

"I would encourage those who are opposed to this notion to have the opportunity t help shape it to the right way," he said.

The administration's principles for agriculture include expanding nutrition and renewable energy, he said.

"I believe there is an appreciation for the president's priorities, which is to improve the nutritional value of meals particularly in the school nutrition programs, that there is a real desire to make sure that we continue to expand access to those programs so that we reach the president's goal ... of eliminating childhood hunger by 2015," Vilsack said of the appropriations subcommittee.

"I think there was clear recognition that we at USDA continue to work hard to protect the integrity of these programs and to continue to reduce as we have over the last several years the error rates in these programs so that we are using taxpayer dollars as effectively and efficiently as we possibly can," he added.

He also perceived a consensus that "we need to continue to focus as we have to the stimulus recovery investment act on building modern infrastructure in a strong rural community to surround our farmers and ranchers because they are so dependent on off-farm income," Vilsack said.

"There was certainly a consensus that we need to continue to promote renewable energy and biofuels for rural America and for that matter, for all of America," he said. The Obama budget actually provides more funding for renewable fuels research and development than does the farm bill.

Minnesota's Peterson says he's reluctant to reopen the farm bill, but Obama's budget calls for putting caps on farm subsidies at $250,000. But Vilsack said that's a moving target. Commodity programs account for only 13 percent of farm bill spending, with nutrition programs taking the lion's share.

"We put a proposal out," he said. "We recognize and appreciate that Congress simply wasn't going to Xerox or mimeograph our budget proposal and pass it on the first day and have the president sign it. Obviously this is process in which Congress has a lot to say about what the priorities ultimately will be and how they're funded."

The administration supports a strong safety net for farmers, he said, "but that we make sure that as we look down the road into the future, that we begin the process of retreating from trillion-dollar deficits and get to a point where it's more sustainable."

The sign-up deadline for both the direct and counter-cyclical programs and the new Average Crop Revenue Election program will be extended from June 1 to Aug. 14, Vilsack said.

"There's a recognition that the farm bill has a number of new programs and a number of new wrinkles to existing programs, and there was a desire on the part of folks in the field -- producers -- folks within my office to make sure that we gave folks enough time to fully understand and appreciate the various nuances and changes that have taken place," he said.

"We gave the ACRE program at least more time to be understood so people can make informed choices and decisions about which of the options that would best fit their current production process, so we felt the June 1 deadline was a little tight," said Vilsack.

The Average Crop Revenue Election program is new in the 2008 Farm Bill, administered by USDA's Farm Service Agency. Beginning with the 2009 crop year, producers can sign up for the optional, revenue-based counter-cyclical program, which is an alternative to receiving counter-cyclical payments. However, participation in ACRE reduces direct payments and lowers marketing assistance loan rates, USDA said.