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Statement by CU on USDA Secretary-Designate Tom Vilsack

December 17, 2008

Statement by Consumers Union on USDA Secretary-Designate Tom Vilsack

WASHINGTON, D.C. – President-elect Barack Obama today appointed Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack to serve as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.
Jean Halloran, Consumers Union’s director of food policy initiatives, made the following statement in response to Vilsack’s appointment:
“As the head of USDA, Governor Vilsack will face enormous challenges in taking this huge bureaucracy and making it work better in areas like food safety and nutrition. He needs to make food safety one of his top priorities. Every year, one in four Americans contracts a foodborne illness, and 5000 people die from that cause. The last year saw the largest meat recall in U.S. history, and Consumer Reports tests found that a majority of U.S. poultry is contaminated with disease-causing bacteria.
“USDA needs to get out of the way of companies who want to go above and beyond what the government will do to improve food safety. We hope that Secretary-designate Vilsack will lift USDA’s current prohibition on slaughter facilities doing their own testing for mad cow disease. USDA’s main argument against it has been that if one company started doing this, all would be forced to in order to stay competitive. Since when is it a bad thing to compete on safety?
“Another priority for Secretary-designate Vilsack needs to be insuring the integrity of USDA-administered labeling programs that help farmers who practice organic and sustainable agriculture communicate with consumers. There has been constant pressure in recent years to water down the standards for the USDA organic label, most recently for organic beef and fish. ‘USDA organic’ must maintain its high standards. USDA must also insure that labels such as grassfed and natural have real meaning for consumers.
“USDA has significant responsibilities in assuring the safety of genetically engineered crops, and it is working on its policies for food crops engineered to produce drugs, like insulin. We hope that the USDA under Vilsack will address not just the promise of such developments, but make sure that it does not compromise the safety of the food supply.
“More than sixty-five percent of the Department of Agriculture budget relates to food consumption, not production. We agree with recent suggestions that the department could be renamed the Department of Food and Agriculture to better reflect its role and responsibility to make sure our food supply is safe.

Media contact:
David Butler, Consumers Union, 202-462-6262
Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, is an independent, nonprofit testing and information organization serving the consumer. We are a comprehensive source of unbiased advice about products and services, personal finance, health, nutrition, and other consumer concerns. Since 1936, our mission has been to test products, inform the public, and protect consumers.