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Industry experts ponder the future in the wake of Ann Veneman's resignation as head of the USDA
by Mark A. DeSorbo
Anthrax, foot-and-mouth, mad cow disease, foodborne pathogens and, of course, the ever-present threat that terrorists may attempt to contaminate the nation’s food supply. Ann M. Veneman’s tenure as head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture was certainly a time of extraordinary suspicion about food safety and security. But now, the first woman to ever hold the position, is resigning; a move that has drawn mixed emotions from the agricultural and food quality communities.
“Now is an appropriate time for me to move on to new opportunities,” Veneman says in a recent letter to President Bush.
Alisa Harrison, USDA’s press secretary, later said that Veneman’s decision to leave the post had been reached “in a private process between the secretary and the administration.”
At the time of this report. Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns, a Republican attorney who grew up on an Iowa dairy farm, had been nominated by President Bush to serve as secretary of Agriculture and succeed Veneman.
The nomination, which requires Senate confirmation, reflects the administration’s desire to focus heavily on farm trade over the next four years. Johanns became a lawyer and served in county and city government before becoming mayor of Lincoln, Neb., in 1991. He won the governor’s office in 1998 and in 2002 became the first Republican to win re-election to that office in more than four decades.
Veneman, a peach farmer’s daughter, had a rather turbulent four-year run. Shortly after she took office in 2001, she was praised for her great fortitude when she bolstered inspections and testing that kept the foot-and-mouth outbreak in Europe out of the United States.
A curve ball came later that year with the 2001 anthrax attacks, which unveiled weaknesses in USDA agencies charged with defending against bioterrorism. All of this compounded with the Sept. 11 attacks, which raised concern that perhaps the terrorists would attack the food supply next.
In 2002, Veneman battled breast cancer and went on to see the enactment of a new farm bill, which was penned by a Congress that ignored her proposals. She then brokered agricultural trade spats with Europe, Asia and Brazil.
Another curve ball came last December with the first verified U.S. case of mad cow disease, and even in her departure, the USDA was still grappling with what was presumed to be a second case of the brain wasting disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), which turned out to be a false alarm. [See related story, p. 12]
Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Food Policy Institute of the Consumer Federation of America (Washington, D.C.), has been rather critical of USDA’s handling of the discovery of a cow infected with BSE in the state of Washington earlier this year.
Foreman, however, also praised Veneman, saying “Americans who care about food safety and nutrition will miss Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman.
“I was surprised and sorry to learn she will be leaving; surprised because I thought she had vigorously supported the president and taken a beating for defending the administration on the farm bill [and] sorry because she was always willing to hear our concerns,” Foreman says in an e-mail to Food Quality. “We were excited by her 2003 speech saying it was time to update the “model T” meat inspection law. The meat industry weighed in and killed that pretty quickly.”
Patrick J. Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute (Washington, D.C), says the last 12 months were indeed filled with intense challenges for Veneman.
“She has faced them with vision and commitment. In addition, under Secretary Veneman, USDA’s food safety efforts complemented industry’s own food safety initiatives. The results: Bacteria on raw meat and poultry decreased dramatically and so did many foodborne illnesses,” Boyle says. “She is to be commended for this outstanding record and her tireless efforts on behalf of U.S. agriculture.”
Dr. George Gray, executive director of the Center for Risk Analysis at Harvard University’s School of Public Health (Boston, Mass.), echoed Boyle’s sentiments, noting the first BSE case and subsequent scare.
“She never said never, and was clear about what steps had been taken and what steps [USDA] was going to take. The lessons from the first case are seemingly being followed here,” he says. “They have done the things they needed to do to protect the food supply, and the way the USDA handled it was a success. I hope that the [USDA] continues her efforts and I hope the openness with the public and that kind of thinking continues under the next secretary.”
Dr. Charles Curtis, a professor in the Department of Plant Pathology at The Ohio State University (Columbus, Ohio), worries that the public doesn’t know enough, especially when it comes to soybean rust, Phakopsora pachyrhizi, the Asian form of the fungus that was recently discovered in two plots at a Louisiana State Research Farm near Baton Rouge. [See related story, p. 14]
“The public knows very little,” he says. “And I don’t even think the public pays any attention. We’ve been expecting it for sometime. It showed up in mid November. It rides the air currents and it can completely devastate a field.”
The university, Dr. Curtis says, is working with USDA in developing a national strategy and hopes USDA will raise awareness publicly to prevent an all out plant plague.
“I’m sure this is going to be on their plate,” Curtis adds, saying there are around 90 million hectares of soybean fields in the United States.
It is unlikely that the USDA will deviate from the agenda Veneman has hammered out, says Dr. Joseph H. Hotchkiss, a professor of food science at Cornell University (Ithaca, N.Y.).
Focus on Bio-security and Safety
“From our prospective, the attitude of the USDA is already set in stone, regardless of who is in charge,” he says. “Anybody in this position will have to maintain a focus of bio-security and safety. Pick any agricultural product you like and see. The effect will have great magnitude. Bio-security and food safety; that’s what the public is demanding and if you don’t do those, you haven’t got anything.”
While Dr. Hotchkiss maintains that little will change, farmers in Veneman’s home state California are worried.
Veneman, a Modesto native, leaves California without an agricultural secretary, who understands its unique crops, climate and pests. Officials here say they have much at stake in Veneman’s replacement. California’s total farm economy produced $32 billion last year. About $5 billion of that was in milk and cream alone. Beef cattle account for a $2 billion industry in California.
“I certainly don’t think that if a Midwesterner or others being kicked about are appointed that we’re going to see an immediate falloff in dealing with the issues,” Bill Pauli, president of the California Farm Bureau (Sacramento), told The Associated Press. “But when the top is focused on certain areas, that tends to get more immediate attention.”
Sunshine state officials say Veneman, who previously served as California secretary of food and agriculture and as deputy secretary of USDA, was instrumental in promoting exports, fighting California’s unique pest and disease problems, delivering $22 million to fight an outbreak of a poultry disease and allaying fears of mad cow last December.
“She conveyed the absence of risk by stepping to a podium and informing the world that she planned to serve American beef at her holiday table,” California Secretary of Food and Agriculture A.G. Kawamura said in a statement.
Kawamura says Veneman “worked tirelessly” and Pauli said she did “an incredible job” in maintaining food safety, farmland conservation and protection from exotic pests and diseases.
Michael Marsh, chief executive officer of the Western United Dairymen, a Modesto, Calif.-based dairy industry trade group, told The Associate Press that Veneman “was very good at stepping up to the plate and doing everything possible so that our herd was kept safe.”
Veneman’s experience as California’s agriculture secretary from 1995 to 1999 shaped national policy in a way that helped state farmers, Santa Cruz County Agricultural Commissioner Dave Moeller says.
“When she went to Washington, that was a real plus for us,” Moeller told the Register-Pajaronian of Watson, Calif. “We’re a state of specialty crops. Sometimes our voice gets lost in the halls of Congress.”