Media Briefing on New Biobased Product Label Remarks by Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) | USDA Newsroom
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Release No. 0022.11
Office of Communications (202)720-4623

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Media Briefing on New Biobased Product Label Remarks by Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

MODERATOR: Good morning, everyone, and thank you for joining us for today's media briefing. We are here in the studio with Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, and she is talking about the USDA's BioPreferred Program.

If you would like to get in on the conversation and ask a question of the Deputy Secretary, just let us know by pressing Star/1 on your touchtone phone.

And with that, I turn it over to Dr. Merrigan. Good morning.

DEPUTY SECRETARY MERRIGAN: Good morning, Susan. Thank you very much.

So, this morning, people don't know it's very cold in Washington, D.C., had a little ice yesterday. My kids didn't have school, and given this weather this morning, I put on a little lip moisturizer. And at long last, I now know with USDA's biobased program that we are announcing today, in very short time I can see a label on certain lip moisturizers that are going to indicate that it achieves a certain threshold of biobased product content.

Consumers are looking for this. The Congress has asked us for this. This is something that's been kicking around for a while, starting in the 2002 farm bill where the USDA's BioPreferred Program was born, Congress really pushing USDA to find the means to increase the purchase and use of biobased products within the Federal Government and then also within the commercial market, so people like me who go to CVS or wherever can shop purposely and try to provide incentives for the private market to increase their environmental efforts to use renewables in their product manufacture.

So, today, we are announcing the initiation of this program. We have a Final Rule that's published, and it will become effective 30 days from now. So we are finally in the homestretch. This is something that my boss, Secretary Tom Vilsack, has been talking quite a bit about with his colleagues in the Cabinet trying to up the ante in Federal purchases of biobased products.

For those who may not know, biobased products are those composed wholly or significantly of biological ingredients, renewable plant, animal, marine, or forestry materials. We've already designated approximately 5,100 biobased products from cleaning products to building materials for preferred purchasing by Federal agencies, and we are trying to improve our efforts to reach out and help our Federal partners understand and follow the law to increase biobased product procurement. That involves improved training programs and a transformed online presence with our biobased catalog of qualified products, so a lot of stuff at work there.

But government, again, cannot be the main purchaser. We need to make biobased products a nationwide industry. So that's why we are working to development government and public markets through this voluntary labeling program, so folks can know what they are purchasing when they are trying to buy, whether it's a cleaning product or bedding or towels. Even towels made from sustainable eucalyptus fibers, for example, is just one of the options that will be out in the market.

So we are pretty excited. The program has two parts, again, the preference program for Federal agencies in this voluntary labeling initiative, and we expect it will be very successful. The Final Rule will actually be in the Federal Register on the 20th, which is tomorrow, and I know people will want to be reading the details of that.

I am here to answer questions, but let me just say that we are really excited because, as you all know, we have been focused every day in every way on the needs of Rural America in this country and finding new market opportunities for small businesses and farmers and ranchers who are out in the countryside, and this program is really about the pillar that Secretary Vilsack has talked about around green jobs, opportunities in Rural America for growth, and we think that this will really provide a great impetus to work that is underway.

People want to know that the government is behind this. I know very well from my experiences with the National Organic Program what that labeling program with Federal backing did for that industry. By all accounts, there was a surge in growth after Congress passed a law and then incredible growth throughout the years, culminating in a big surge after the Final Rule was in place, because consumers want to know with a plethora of labeling claims in the marketplace that what they are investing their dollars in is meaningful, that it is backed by some sort of certification. This program will be third-party certified. It has certain thresholds that have to be met in terms of product content, and we think it is a win on every level.

So, Susan, it is great to be here today, and I am happy to address any questions that come forward.

MODERATOR: Let me open up with you touched on it a little bit and you kind of gave us a sense of what this is going to mean for consumers, but if I were to walk into the store or anybody who is listening were to walk into the store right now and we saw this label, what exactly would we see, and then really, what would it mean for me if I saw that to say, "Hey, maybe I really should buy this product because it's BioPreferred, and it's what the country is pushing"?

DEPUTY SECRETARY MERRIGAN: Well, there's a logo that you will be able to see. Well, you know, you look at it in the Federal Register tomorrow, you know, artist conceptualization. It captures the sun, the sea, and the earth. We got a lot of feedback on the proposed image that had gone out, and I think we have improved the design over time. It will also tell you about the content of the biobased element in the manufacture of the product and the package itself.

So I think it will take to really register with the American public. We have certainly seen that with the USDA organic seal. It takes time and educational efforts that need to embed around the product over time. Both companies will be promoting the product, if it is on there, they will be wanting their customers to understand the meaning of that label, what that label is about, and the Federal Government is going to be talking more and more about this labeling program starting today.

So I expect that consumers will begin to see this label in the marketplace sometime this spring.

MODERATOR: Okay. With that, we go to Chris Clayton with DTN. Good morning, Chris.

QUESTIONER (DTN): Good morning, Secretary. I wanted to ask briefly about the President that proposed yesterday or laid out this order to cut regs in the various agencies, cut red tape to promote economic growth. Does USDA have a list of rules, regulations where they see redundancy that can be eliminated?

DEPUTY SECRETARY MERRIGAN: Good morning, Chris. I don't have that list, but certainly, we all red the President's very powerful op-ed in the Wall Street Journal this week. I will be working with Cass Sunstein, the Administrator of OIRA over at OMB, in a reg group that he has assembled to be taking the President's challenge very seriously.

We know that this is also something Secretary Vilsack has talked about, is trying to make government work better, work more efficiently, and trying to ease the frustration that some of our constituents, particularly our farmers and ranchers have, in trying to get through what seems to be reams of paper to get access to government programs.

That said, let me just scoot on back to the biobased program for a second. This is, and people should understand this, a voluntary labeling program. It is in that family with organic in that no one is compelled to do it. This is something that people can choose to participate in this government program. We think it will be a boost, but if people don't see it that way, they can carry on their merry way.

MODERATOR: Reporters, if you want to ask a question of Deputy Secretary Merrigan, let us know by pressing Star/1 on your touchtone phone. We go to Jerry Hagstrom with The Hagstrom Report.

QUESTIONER (The Hagstrom Report): Good morning, Deputy Secretary Merrigan.

There are so many labels out there, and people sometimes wonder does the certification really mean anything. Can you tell us a little bit about how your — I assume you are certifying the certifiers, and what kind of standards will be imposed and what kind of checks you will have on this to make sure that the consumer can really have confidence that this product is really biobased as the label says?

DEPUTY SECRETARY MERRIGAN: Well, certainly, it is going to be a USDA-certified biobased product, so that certified is the question that you are asking, what is it that really goes to that certification. Well, we are going to require applicants to submit certain kinds of information, and we will be contracting with ASTM International, which is an existing independent third-party certifying agency, and they will be arranging for product biobased content testing by independent laboratories using the ASTM biobased content testing standard.

You will be able to read it in detail in the forthcoming Federal Register, but there is a program that will be backing this up. Actually, just before coming into this teleconference, I was meeting with staff of the biobased program talking about the need to develop a longer range monitoring program, so we are not just looking at the front end — you get in the door, you get the label, isn't that great — but what about a couple years down the road, five years down the road, we have to make sure that those standards are upheld, maintained. And in the future, we may decide, as the industry evolves, that the thresholds will increase in the biobased content. I think that is a very important principle here.

There was some debate internal, external, about what should be the magic content level that achieves the biobased product label. Some people, of course, would like it higher. Some people, of course, would like it lower as things go. But what we tried to do is achieve something that to set a standard where we thought it was achievable by a significant part of the industry and yet was pushing people to increase their biobased content by providing this label incentive. But we are not ready to put the period at the end of the sentence for all time because we see that this is a growing area for consumers. Their interest is burgeoning in this area, and industry is innovative, and over time, we may see those thresholds change.

MODERATOR: Reporters, Star/1 on your touchtone phone pad if you want to ask a question and get in on the conversation about USDA's BioPreferred Program.

We will go back to the lanes. We will go to Paul Voosen and, followed by that, Ellyn Ferguson. Good morning, Paul.

QUESTIONER (Greenwire): Thank you for speaking, Deputy Secretary. Speaking about the threshold, I saw from the Proposed Rule to the Final Rule, you dropped down from about 51 percent to 25 percent, and I was just wondering, can you speak a bit more about why? I mean, you just said that you wanted a wider range of manufacturers to qualify, but what standards do we have for raising it, and what was the give-and-take on that? I know there are some companies that are a bit more avant-garde, like Metabolic had opposed that. Just what was your thought process on it?

DEPUTY SECRETARY MERRIGAN: Well, I think that the program staff worked very carefully through the comments that we received in the Federal Register, their own analyses of what was doable.

If I could draw an analogy, again, I always go back to my little organic program, but we do have an allowance that is being used less and less, but it was used much more at the beginning of the program, and it was a commercial availability clause, because we wanted very high, strict standards, but we couldn't pull it off overnight because then there would be nobody with the organic seal.

It has really been a phenomenal success story in the organic market space where there has been a ratcheting up of those standards and fewer and fewer exceptions made for commercial availability. So here again in the biobased program, as we initiate this program, we are looking for that sweet spot where we feel that it launches a program of significant girth, that it's meaningful, and consumers can see that label and go for those options, but it is not meaningless. You know, you have to have a 25 percent threshold in order to achieve this label, which is not insignificant.

Another piece of information that informed our decision was looking at what is going around not just in this country but internationally, and so what we were going to put forward as part of this biobased program, consistent with international standards, well, the European Union and Japan, you know, are mature societies where they have consumers demanding these kind of product lines as well. They are in the 20-to-25-percent range as a minimum threshold, too, so we are in good company.

MODERATOR: We go back to our phone lines. Ellyn Ferguson with Congressional Quarterly.

QUESTIONER (Congressional Quarterly): Hi. I had a question off from the topic, and it's about Under Secretary Jim Miller resigning. Can you provide any kind of information on that?

DEPUTY SECRETARY MERRIGAN: Well, I believe I read in The Hagstrom Report — you know, you get all the information from you people. No, I actually do know. But I believe Jim has indicated to his colleagues here at the Department that he will be leaving us probably the end of the month to go back to the Hill, and he will be extremely missed here.

He has been an unbelievable champion for global trade, for farmers and ranchers overseas. I don't know how many frequent flyer miles he has clocked. He is road weary. He has done us incredible service in terms of his leadership in SRA reform and saving taxpayers $4 billion. He has really given some new visions to the Farm Services Agency on top of his trade work. He is going to be impossible to replace and deeply missed by all of his colleagues here.

But we're not losing him in Washington. We just imagine we are shifting the relationship a bit.

MODERATOR: All right. We go back to our phone lines with Tim Parker with Oregon Department of Agriculture. Good morning.

QUESTIONER (Oregon Department of Agriculture): Good morning. Hey, here in the West, we have a great interest in growing the feedstocks for the biobased programs. Specifically biolubricants are a great interest out here as an alternative to petroleum. And can you tell us, is there any teeth in the certification process that will require Federal or State agencies to participate in the purchase of these types of products? And I guess, secondly, what can you tell me about the private sector? In terms of the private sector, is that just something that they might be incented to use BioPreferred because they can show that they use the products? Is that kind of where we're going with this?

DEPUTY SECRETARY MERRIGAN: Yeah. To the latter point, we believe that this provides a market incentive for people, that this label will allow people to differentiate their product in the marketplace and attract consumers and build marketing campaigns for consumers based on the biobased content of their product. So we really are facilitating what is going on already in the private market but undergirding with a government program of certification and a minimum standard. So, again, this is happening out there. We think that this will accelerate it by launching this program.

As to the teeth for the Federal program, this again is something that Congress has asked us to do. We have been working very diligently with our colleagues in the Federal family to adopt the Biopreferred products that are out there, and I think we've had some particular success across the government dealing with facilities, operations, and maintenance where we are really seeing great take-up on various kinds of lubricants. I guess that's a big interest of yours, greases, gear lubricants, diesel fuel additives, cycle engine oils, multipurpose lubricants, penetrating lubricants, turbine drip oils, all the things that I could talk about for hours. No, I'm only kidding. I really don't understand that stuff very well at all.

But the point is we are seeing some significant uptake, and again, I do want to credit my boss, Tom Vilsack, for really going direct-direct, Cabinet member to Cabinet member, when he took the helm here at USDA underscoring how important this is and what his expectations are.

So right now things are moving well. If we see a slowdown, a stalling, or a backtracking, then we will reassess.

MODERATOR: But also, Deputy Merrigan, you know that people can go and look at Final Rule tomorrow, which is going to be published in the Federal Register, and they can get all of that information and have a better understanding.

DEPUTY SECRETARY MERRIGAN: That's right. That's right.

MODERATOR: Anything else to add before we close?

DEPUTY SECRETARY MERRIGAN: No. I just thank everyone for joining su today.

MODERATOR: All right. And that ends our media conference today on the USDA's BioPreferred Program, and again, as I just said, the Final Rule comes out tomorrow, January 20th, and it's published in the Federal Register. Thank you for joining us.