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TRANSCRIPT OF NEWS CONFERENCE WITH AGRICULTURE SECRETARY TOM VILSACK
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- JANUARY 26, 2009
MODERATOR: Good morning from Washington. I'm Larry Quinn speaking to you from the Broadcast Center at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Welcome to today's news conference with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.
A note to reporters before we begin—if you wish to ask a question, please let us know by pressing *1 on your telephone touchpad.
Now it's my pleasure to introduce Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.
SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: Larry, thanks very much. And thanks to all who are joining us today for what is the first formal press event since I became Secretary. I had a great first week here at the Department, and it's obviously an honor and a privilege to be serving the President and the people of this country as Secretary of Agriculture.
We have a lot do at the Department. It's an organization with great challenges but also great opportunities. I'll discuss a couple of those, but let me start by talking just a bit about my first week at the Department.
The first thing I did on the first day was to meet with ethics officers to make sure that my incoming team and myself understood the rules that will be in place involving ethics and so that we could fully comply with those rules and existing rules as well as the new standards and expectations which were laid out by President Obama.
Today I signed the Ethics Agreement called for by the President, as well as reviewed a number of executive orders outlining the values under which President Obama wants this Department and all departments to operate—values that involve a transparency, a participatory government, and a collaborative government. The President has clearly established how important it is that we adhere to high ethical standards and that we make it a priority to reshape government to make sure that the people of this country are served, and not the special interests.
I'm going to work quickly to establish standards for myself and my incoming team and all USDA officials and employees. It's vital that we have these standards in place, that they be rigorous, and that they meet the expectations of the citizens and taxpayers of this country.
During the first couple of days I also met twice with our civil rights team here at the Department, and I had a chance to address both career employees here and met with my acting subcabinet. There is a strong team of career civil servants leading this Department, and I have made it clear to them that they will be empowered to lead change and to generate ideas and initiatives to drive this Department forward.
It is a top priority for me to fill quickly those positions of responsibility at USDA that I have the responsibility and privilege to fill. I am looking for competent, diligent leaders, and we continue to make progress identifying individuals who we think will do a good job at USDA.
While I'm not prepared today to name names because of the vetting process that has to take place, we are making progress, and I look forward to putting the team together as quickly as possible. During this interim period, we do have a small team in place, and I hope to be able to supplement that shortly.
We are also in the midst of implementing the regulatory review memo which was put forward by the President's Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, and the OMB Director Peter Orszag. We are reviewing all the rules that meet the standards in the memo, and we'll be acting in the coming days to make sure that the regulations--where we still have some degree of flexibility--meet the objectives which have been set by the President. At this point only a few firm decisions have been made, but we are moving with speed and care on this important priority.
I want to take this opportunity to address two issues, that we have taken some action on, that might be of interest to you and to your listeners. One of the things we've done is to withdraw a rescission which has been requested by the previous Administration in a popular program--a block grant program that provided millions of dollars of assistance to specialty crops, that would promote the growth of healthy fruits and vegetables. The rescission, if it had been put into effect, would have cut more than $3 million from this popular program. It is clear, from what President Obama has indicated to me, that he wants this Department to promote nutrition through the use of healthy fruits and vegetables. And so we are withdrawing that rescission so that those resources can be made available to that very important and popular specialty crop program.
Also as part of the regulatory review process I have directed the Department to extend the comment period for the payment limit rule for an additional 60 days. I want to be clear about this. First of all, the President has indicated very clearly that he wants this government, this agency, and all agencies, to be transparent, to be participatory, and to be collaborative. That means he wants us to reach out to the people of this country to engage them in conversation, discussion, and debate about policy decisions.
The payment limit rule generated a very small number of comments. And so by extending the comment period we are encouraging folks to participate. But I want to be clear about this: this will not necessarily signal any effort on our part to modify the rules that are in place for the 2009 crop year. I realize that sign-up has begun, and it's important for farmers, ranchers, and bankers to have clear and consistent rules in place so that producers can prepare for the crop year and manage their risk appropriately.
However, I want to pursue an extended comment period so that we can review the extent and purpose of the rule for future crop years. To date we've only received a half dozen comments on this important rule, and I hope that by extending the comment period that additional farmers and other interested parties will have the opportunity to participate and to comment.
I am particularly interested in suggestions that would help the Department target the payments to farmers who really need the payments and to ensure that payments are not being provided to ineligible parties.
Now I want to touch quickly on some of my other top priorities for the Department in a very general way. First and foremost, the USDA has an incredible opportunity to promote a sustainable, safe, sufficient, and nutritious food supply for all Americans and for people around the world. This Department has an incredible opportunity to combat childhood obesity and to enhance health and nutrition. And I believe the Department should play a key role in the public health debate, and that our nutrition program should be seen as an opportunity to both alleviate hunger and to prevent health care problems.
I've spoken to Secretary Daschle about this issue, and I also understand and appreciate the President's directive to me and to all of us with his challenge to eliminate childhood hunger by 2015. This involves a number of steps beginning with the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Programs, a great opportunity for us to make a statement about the importance of healthy and nutritious eating.
I also want this Department to be a national leader in climate change mitigation, adaptation efforts. This of course will involve conservation, greater efficiency with the energy that we have, as well as new technologies and expanded opportunities in biofuels and renewable energy. I'm going to work to advance research and development and pursue opportunities to support the development of additional biofuels, wind power, and other renewable energy sources.
We need to make sure that the biofuels industry has the necessary support to survive the recent downturn while at the same time promoting policies that will speed up the development of second and third-generation feedstocks for those biofuels that have the potential to significantly improve America's energy security and independence.
I expect our farmers and ranchers will play a role in making progress on the great challenge of climate change and on other major environmental challenges. It's important to me that the USDA lead efforts to incentivize management practices that promote and provide clean air, clean water, and wildlife habitat, and to help farmers participate in markets that reward them for sequestering carbon and limiting greenhouse gas emissions.
It is my hope that the Farm Bill's provisions in terms of energy and conservation can be implemented promptly and properly and that we see the Forest Service as a new opportunity for us to engage in climate change mitigation/adaptation strategies.
I want this Department to make sure that it is doing everything it can to support the profitability of farmers and ranchers. That means the safety net constructed by the Farm Bill is a safety net that works for all agriculture. Support for independent producers, local and organic agriculture, and enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act will be priorities of this Administration.
We are going to work very quickly as best we can to implement the 2008 Farm Bill, to take steps to modernize the food safety system, and to invest in programs, as I indicated earlier, that will alleviate hunger not just in America but also hunger and suffering overseas, and support long-term agricultural development.
It is important to me that the USDA be also a place of a modern workforce and a modern workplace. We'll be focusing on IT improvements, process improvements, and an empowered and diverse workforce to make that happen.
We also want the USDA to be a supporter of 21st century rural communities. We'll be looking at promoting the expansion of modern infrastructure, expanded broadband opportunities, affordable, energy-efficient housing in rural communities, expanded small business opportunities, and improving the quality of life through community facilities.
We have some serious challenges and many opportunities to pursue here at the USDA. I'm looking forward to working with the dedicated employees of the USDA in all the departments to fulfill President Obama's desire of effecting change, promoting a stronger, more vibrant and more economically viable rural America.
With that, Larry, let's open it up, and we'll see if we can respond to some questions.
MODERATOR: And one more reminder to reporters as we prepare to take your questions. We remind you to press *1 on your telephone touchpad to indicate you have a question. And our first question today comes from Roberta Rampton of Reuters. Standing by is Matt Kaye.
Roberta, go ahead, please.
REPORTER: Hi. President Obama has said he wants to double production of renewable energy. And I'm wondering if you can expand a little bit on what USDA's role will be in achieving that goal. And specifically you talked about the need to make sure that ethanol producers have the support to survive this downturn. Can you speak to what you meant by that, or sort of give us some more detail about that?
SEC. VILSACK: Well, as I think it's fairly clear, ethanol producers are under a particular strain as is the case with most elements of our economy. There will be a premium on ethanol producers who are efficient and effective in the management of the facilities. USDA has a role I believe in helping to develop and promote best practices that will increase and enhance management efficiencies which in turn will allow more of these producers of ethanol to stay in business.
Meanwhile, I think it is important for us to take a look at the fairly significant set of legislative proposals that were made in the energy title of the Farm Bill and to work very quickly to implement as many of those as possible. We need to create additional demand for advanced biofuels and renewable energy, working with farmers for example to determine how best they could change their operations to embrace renewable energy and fuel in their operations, working with rural communities to encourage the same, working with farmers to encourage them to produce biomass crops, working with the Forest Service to take a look at how the woody biomass operations may be called into play to increase the supply of second and third generation biofuels.
There are a series of tax credits, grants, and loan programs designed to expand production facilities and to convert existing production facilities to use these new fuels. All of that is in the realm, if you will, of the USDA, and I think it's important for the USDA to aggressively promote these efforts.
I think we are in a position to begin the march which President Obama has laid out of creating new green collar jobs. It can and should and I believe ought to begin in rural America, and I think USDA is prepared to do this. That will be supplemented by two additional activities. As Congress develops the stimulus package and bill there will likely be some opportunity for USDA to work in concert with the Department of Energy and perhaps other departments of government to promote and to market aggressively the need for biofuels and renewable energy, both obviously in rural communities but also in urban centers as well.
There will also be an opportunity potentially later in the year as the President works on a larger energy package for USDA to play a role. So there are tremendous opportunities today, opportunities for leveraging resources in the private sector and other governments working with state and local governments. I'm also looking forward to the stimulus package once it's passed by Congress and signed by the President. And I'm looking forward to participating in the formulation of an overall energy policy for the country.
MODERATOR: Matt Kaye of the Berns Bureau is next. And standing by should be Jim Berger. Matt Kaye, go ahead.
REPORTER: Yes. Thank you, Mr. Secretary, and congratulations to you, and good luck in your new job.
On the stimulus package, any specifics? We've been looking for the last couple of weeks for specifics that would benefit agriculture in these very difficult times. I've not seen anything particular on the issue of loan guarantees for biofuel refineries, things that might benefit us on the trade issues, moving some of the trade agreements. Any thought to what might be put in there that could directly benefit agriculture, either on the spending side or the tax side? And what role are you playing to help shape the stimulus so that it does have elements that can help the farm community?
SEC. VILSACK: Well, first of all, I think it's important to take a look at the 2008 Farm Bill as the first effort to stimulate the economy in rural communities. And this was a significant commitment of resources over the next four years dedicated to creating more support for biofuels and renewable energy, greater opportunities. For example there's $400 million worth of tax credits available for ethanol producers. There are, as I said earlier, significant resources for new production facilities to revamp existing production facilities, to create incentives for new crops to be used to produce biofuels.
So within the Farm Bill, I think you have to look at that as sort of the opening effort to stimulate the economy. And so our challenge at USDA is to get those programs up and going and to get the resources out into the rural communities as quickly as possible.
I think as you look at the stimulus package one of the things that we urged the President and members of his economic team to consider is the stimulating impact and effect of food assistance. It is fairly clear that if you look at the rapid turnover of dollars to try to create jobs and to stimulate the economy that when you put a dollar into the food programs, whether it's WIC or SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), that turns over into the economy quite quickly and helps to promote and create jobs. For every dollar that's spent in those programs, it returns about $1.73 of economic activity. So that's an immediate stimulus.
And clearly the stimulus package that is being proposed and has been considered and has gone through the House Appropriations Committee for example, what the President proposed both of those programs, a significant investment of multiple billions of dollars to supplement, to increase our commitment on food and nutrition.
I think it's also important to recognize the important role as you talk about trade, as you talk about the opportunity to expand markets, the capacity of folks in rural communities to have access to the Internet cannot be under-appreciated or underestimated. You can't open yourself up to world markets, to new opportunities, unless you have access to that tool. So to the extent that there has been a discussion and a proposal to spend substantial sums of money quickly to expand broadband access, I think that is an important tool.
It is also I think relevant, both in terms of the biofuel and renewable energy side of this, that there are commitments being made to the Forest Service. I think a lot of times people forget that the Forest Service is a very important part of USDA's mission, a very important part of this new economy that we're trying to create, this 21st century American economy. They have much to offer.
And so I think you have to look at the stimulus package in concert with and in connection with the Farm Bill. And what you see is essentially a combination of significant resources coming into play in all aspects of USDA's mission.
One final thing. I think it's important to also recognize that when you look at stimulating the economy and creating jobs, the conservation programs that are being advocated and financed through the Farm Bill and the Rural Development component of infrastructure, programs that involve business and industry guaranteed loans, business enterprise grants, wastewater disposal programs, those things – those put people to work. And as people look at trying to create a vibrant rural community that in turn can support farmers and ranchers, you have to recognize that many farm families across the country are relying not just on farm income but also on jobs of spouses or second jobs that can be developed in a community.
MODERATOR: Our next questioner will be Jim Berger of Washington Trade Daily, followed by Larry Dreiling.
Jim, go ahead.
REPORTER: Yes. Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Welcome to Washington. Can you tell us a little bit about the priorities that trade will play in this administration, or will the focus right now be on domestic issues?
And also I know it's early in your term but do you have any plans for any foreign visits, going abroad, or your counterparts coming here? I know that President Obama will either go to Canada or the Canadians come down here. Anyway, can you talk a little bit about that? Thank you.
SEC. VILSACK: Well, first of all, I think it's important that when you take a look at the ability of us to have a prosperous agricultural economy, it's important to focus on the diversity of options that have to be created and supported by the USDA. Trade is certainly extraordinarily important to agriculture, and the fact is that agriculture is very important to trade. And so I recognize the significance of it, and I recognize the importance of it as a tool, as one way to diversify income opportunities.
Many of the crops that are grown in the United States are exported to other countries, and so trade becomes a very important tool. It's not the only tool. There are other tools. We've talked about renewable energy and biofuels; that is a tool. We've talked about organic and sustainable farming; that is a tool. All these things need to be supported and promoted in addition to production agriculture. So number one, that's important.
Number two, just today for example I'm going to have an opportunity to visit very briefly with the Federal Agriculture Minister of Canada. And I suspect that courtesy conversation will touch on trade issues, at least in a very general way. And we will continue to work with the trade representative to make sure that as trade negotiations are taking place, whether it's with an individual country or whether it's on a broader scale, that agricultural interests are at the table, understood, and appreciated.
What we have to be careful of is that, in an effort to try to get comprehensive trade agreements, that we don't sacrifice the interest of agriculture in the hopes of promoting other interests that are important to the country. I believe with a lot of hard work and dedication we can do both; we can promote agriculture here, create export opportunities for our goods, and at the same time allow American manufactured goods and other services to expand as well.
So trade is important, and in terms of foreign travel when you asked the question I thought you were asking whether I'd be traveling outside the city limits of Washington. My hope is that I have an opportunity to travel around the country. I've certainly received a lot of encouragement from members of Congress to visit their states and to learn about the diverse agriculture that we have in the country. I look forward to taking up those members of Congress on their invitations.
And I suspect at the appropriate time there may be foreign travel but it is something that hasn't been discussed and so I'm not going to commit today to where or when.
MODERATOR: Next question comes from Larry Dreiling from High Plains Journal. And he'll be followed by Dan Looker. Larry, go ahead.
REPORTER: Thank you, Larry. I just want to ask about an expansion of your answer about nutrition programs. One of the things that people out my way have talked about is that they fear there will be cuts in not nutrition programs but there will be cuts in farm programs and conservation programs in order to pay for increased nutrition programs; that there will be higher offsets for these programs in light of the fact that there's going to be a higher need for increases in WIC and other programs.
Could you expand on what you were saying originally about making nutrition programs part of the stimulus program rather than making them offsets to the conservation and the farm programs that farmers generally need?
SEC. VILSACK: Well, I think it's fairly clear, from both the stimulus package that the President proposed and the stimulus package that is being considered and is modified by at least the House Appropriations Committee and in my discussions with the Senate, I think it's probably consistent as well that the Senate will see a significant increase in the amount of support for the nutrition programs through the stimulus package.
There are multiple reasons for that. First and foremost, in a tough economy obviously it becomes tougher to put food on the table. Secondly, we have to acknowledge that there have been rising food costs throughout the country and those rising food costs place a strain on ordinary family budgets.
It's one of the reasons why the President is promoting tax policies that would put money in the pockets of folks immediately with his tax cut for 95 percent of American families. So that's one reason. So it's tougher to put food on the table.
Secondly, as I indicated earlier, I think there's a general recognition on the part of economists that when you put dollars into food programs and assistance programs you are basically stimulating the economy very quickly. And this is about stimulating the economy, getting us back on the right track, generating revenues for the government, putting people back to work – which makes it easier over time to become more fiscally responsible.
You know, I think it is important for us in USDA to make sure that the tax dollars that are being invested by the taxpayers and citizens of this country in this Department are being used as effectively and as efficiently as possible. So I would anticipate that there will be an aggressive effort within the Department to take a look at how we might be able to improve processes that we currently use, to streamline, and to make more efficient those processes so that we can save as much money in the administration of the Department as we possibly can—so that we can either redirect those resources to other priorities or assist the overall government in getting its fiscal house in order.
I think the President has recognized that we are in difficult times. It's going to take awhile for us to turn the corner. We've got to stimulate the economy today, and then at some point in time we're going to have to create a better balance in terms of fiscal responsibility. It will not be easy. We will do our part.
MODERATOR: Dan Looker of Successful Farming is next. Standing by should be Gary Jackson. Dan, go ahead.
REPORTER: Thank you. Good morning, Mr. Secretary. Congratulations on your new position. I wondered if you could elaborate a bit on how you see the USDA helping farmers participate in carbon trading programs or in sequestering carbon.
SEC. VILSACK: Well, I would anticipate and expect that as the energy debate moves forward and as the climate change debate moves forward, that we will create some kind of mechanism or system in this country that will either provide offsets or credits for certain practices that will allow those who are being regulated to meet their responsibilities. I think agriculture, the Forest Service, farming and the Forest Service in particular, have opportunities. Whether it's utilizing and being able to define more specifically precisely how much carbon is captured by agricultural production – I mean that's one of the key challenges. Do we have sufficient data and information to know precisely how to set up an offset system.
I think USDA can be involved and engaged in that through research projects and the like. I think the Forest Service presents a very interesting and unique opportunity because right now with uncontrolled wildfires we are actually contributing to greenhouse gases instead of reducing them. And I think, if we look at a strategic plan to manage the forests and to manage wildfires more effectively, we might be able to reduce the carbon that's going into the atmosphere through these fires by reducing either the intensity or severity of the fires or the frequency of them in certain circumstances and/or use forests as carbon sinks.
So there's tremendous opportunity in those two areas. The issue of sequestration is one that I think is ripe for accelerated research. And I would anticipate that we'll be working very closely with the Department of Energy to make sure that our research projects complement each other and are not necessarily contradictory.
MODERATOR: Next question comes from Gary Jackson with the ABN Network in Ohio. Standing by should be Martin Ross. Gary?
REPORTER: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Broadcasting in a state where the land grant system is very much alive, what importance do you place, your Administration place, on the budgetary dollars earmarked for agricultural research at these land grant institutions?
SEC. VILSACK: Well, I think it's important for us to recognize the important role that the land grant colleges and universities play as well as the historic black colleges and universities play in the promotion of research and development. I think the key here will be for us to not only make sure that there are adequate resources but, most importantly, to make sure that the research that is being done is focused and is directed in a way that will complement whatever the USDA research and opportunities might be.
I think it's going to be important as we put our team together to make sure that there is an understanding of precisely what the land grant universities are up to, what they are actually doing, what they are focusing on, and how that dovetails and complements what USDA is going to do.
We also have this opportunity of establishing, by virtue of legislation passed last year--the Farm Bill--is to establish the National Food and Agriculture Institute which will I think also provide opportunities for complementing the research that's being done not just on the land grant side but also in the private sector. I think it's very important in difficult economic times that the research that is being done, that every research dollar be efficiently and effectively spent and invested.
We don't have time to waste. We don't have money to waste. We don't have opportunities to waste. And so I think it's important that we have a coordinated effort, and that's one of the goals that we will challenge the Under Secretary of Research, Education, and Economics to focus on.
MODERATOR: Next question comes from Martin Ross from Illinois Farm Week. Standing by should be Elise Castelli. Martin?
REPORTER: Thank you. And thank you, Mr. Secretary.
Two regulatory questions. Number one, under the regulatory memorandum, where does COOL stand? What will be the procedure for further discussions of the COOL rule and especially for meat labeling?
And secondly, what role might USDA have in terms of maybe advising, providing data toward California's carbon standard? There are some concerns that their standard could skew away from biofuels for renewable fuels based on some indirect impact criteria.
SEC. VILSACK: Well, let me speak first about the COOL requirement. The Country of Origin Labeling final regulation, as you know, was published in the Federal Register on January 16 and is scheduled to become effective on March 16. It is an important rule, and I recognize and appreciate that there are many Americans who are watching this closely.
I want to state very clearly that I strongly support COOL, and I think it's important that we have a rule in place that gives consumers the information they need to make informed decisions while also allowing producers to differentiate their products and that provides clear and consistent guidance to affected industries.
Prior to the effective date of this rule, as has been instructed by the memorandum from the White House, we will carefully review and analyze the regulation as well as comments that are received from the public. We are in the midst of reviewing that rule in addition to many others in keeping with the direction of the Chief of Staff's memo. Only a couple of decisions have been made on any of the rules. I've outlined two today, one having to do with the specialty crop block grant program and the rescission that was put into place by Secretary Schafer that we are rescinding, as well as the payment limit comment period extension.
We will move quickly to comply with the direction and make sure that we obviously take COOL under consideration, but there has been no final decision made about COOL.
As it relates to California, this is an area that I'm going to obviously need to learn more about and probably am not in a position to comment fully and completely on that particular issue today.
MODERATOR: Next question comes from Elise Castelli of Federal Times, and followed by Daniel Goldstein. Elise, go ahead.
REPORTER: Good morning, Mr. Secretary. You spoke earlier about modernizing the USDA workforce and workplace through IT improvements and process improvements. I was wondering if you can talk a little bit more about what you intend to do in those areas.
SEC. VILSACK: Well, thank you for asking that question. Actually it was the first question I asked the transition staff when the President nominated me for this position. I was interested to know how many people actually work at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And I was told that no one knows for sure how many people work at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They could tell me how many checks are issued, but not how many people actually work here.
That, together with a number of reports from the Inspector General's Office and from the GAO concerning the operation and management of the Department, suggested that what we have here in some aspects in some areas of the Department is, charitably, outdated, very dated computer technology – which is one of the reasons why we have urged Congress, as it considers the stimulus bill, to provide the resources that USDA needs to modernize its technology systems.
Now there are multiple reasons for this. First and foremost, it is about improving the service to the people that we serve. We need at some point in time to have a web-based system that is easily accessible to farmers and ranchers and those who depend on the programs that USDA administers. To date, we don't have that kind of system in place. We ought to; in the 21st century, we ought to.
Secondly, it is about data collection. If we are going to be able to certify to the taxpayers of this country that resources invested in USDA are being invested wisely, we have to be able to document the results, the return on investment if you will. That's difficult to do unless you have accurate information and data.
While obviously those who are working for USDA with outdated equipment do a tremendous job of putting together a multitude of facts and statistics and reports, it's more difficult with outdated technology. So it's about data and it's about performance.
And third, it's about efficiency. As you modernize the equipment, you give people who are doing difficult work, who are continually being asked to do more, you give them the opportunity to meet that challenge. So there are multiple reasons why it is important for us to modernize the technology of the Department.
It will not be easy. It's not easy because the way in which technology has been developed in the Department over time has been that each subcabinet area, each agency of the 29 agencies that make up the USDA, all of them have made, to a certain extent, independent decisions about the technology. And so one of the keys is to try to make sure that we work to develop a consistent system so that, for example, the Secretary of Agriculture can send one e-mail to employees on any issue as opposed to what happens today where multiple e-mails have to be sent because different agencies use different computer systems.
The workforce at USDA, if you look at the demographic make-up of the workforce, what you'll find is that 58 percent of the workers are 45 years or older, which means that you have, compared to the workforce generally across the country, an aging workforce. And so it's going to be necessary to sort of strategically look at retirements that will take place in key areas of USDA and how we will deal with those retirements as we lose the experience and the training and the background of these people who have worked for decades here.
That's not easy to replace, and so it's going to be important for us to have a strategy in place to make sure we have a modern workforce and a workforce that is diverse that reflects the America of today. I don't think it's any secret, the Department has had some issues over the course of time with civil rights, both in terms of its programming and in terms of its employment practices. The good news is, is that the number of EEO complaints of the Department has gone down recently, but that's the good news. The more difficult news is that we still have work to do make sure that our workforce is representative of America.
So those are some of the areas of concern.
MODERATOR: Daniel Goldstein is next, followed by Peter Rohde.
REPORTER: Thank you, Larry. And thank you, Mr. Secretary. Congratulations.
In your testimony to Congress you said that sound science and data would help guide your decisions, and obviously in the case of ethanol—and the blending cap of this will be EPA's call—but in your view does sound science and data support an expansion of that blending cap for ethanol producers? And how might, in your view, an expanded blend of ethanol boost the industry?
SEC. VILSACK: Well, as you may know there has been a great deal of conversation and discussion about ethanol and EPA's role in determining its contribution relative to climate change, greenhouse gases and the like. I think what we need to be doing at USDA is, first and foremost, establishing a very good working relationship and a good communications system between USDA and EPA.
I was encouraged by the fact that Alisa Jackson, who is designated as the EPA Administrator, sought me out during the transition to assure me that there will be that line of communication and that level of understanding and expertise at EPA that will appreciate the challenges that agriculture generally has in the country.
I think it's going to be important for us to recognize that there are a number of challenges to the way in which ethanol is being produced today, and we have to respond to those challenges. And one way we respond is by accelerating significantly the research that will allow us to be more efficient with the feedstocks that we have today—which is also going to help ethanol producers survive difficult times—at the same time, working on promoting second and third generation feedstocks that may be even more beneficial from a climate change perspective or could complement the current system.
And I think EPA should take some solace, if you will, in the fact that we are engaged and involved in that.
Obviously, we have a serious challenge that has been put forward by Congress to meet the various mandates for renewable fuel within our system. In order to do that, we're going to have to figure out ways to incorporate ethanol into the fuel system at even greater levels over the course of time. And it's also clear that within a very short number of years we are going to have to be relying on something other than solely corn-based ethanol, based on the mandates and directives.
So all of that is to say, there needs to be lines of communication; there needs to be an effort to promote and extend ethanol use in a variety of ways; and there needs to be a recognition that there are challenges to the expansion of that use, and USDA needs to help meet those challenges.
MODERATOR: Peter Rohde from Kiplinger's Biofuels Market Alert is next, followed by Ed O'Keefe.
REPORTER: Well, thank you very much. Welcome to the town, Mr. Secretary. Congratulations.
While you are on the subject of EPA, there's the regulations for the second renewable fuel standard that is pending. Do you have any idea what the timeframe for those regulations are?
SEC. VILSACK: I do not.
REPORTER: Thank you very much.
MODERATOR: Okay, our next question comes from Ed O'Keefe of The Washington Post. And standing by is Jerry Hagstrom of Congress Daily.
REPORTER: Mr. Secretary, thanks. I know you've appointed an acting FSIS deputy under secretary. I'm wondering how quickly you will move to make those appointments permanent, especially in light of the salmonella stuff which I know is mostly FDA. So I'm curious where you stand on the possibility and the sort of debate about merging these two food safety inspection agencies together.
SEC. VILSACK: As I indicated earlier, we are working very hard to identify competent, passionate, enthusiastic, and energetic individuals that will help lead the various subcabinet agencies of this Department. And certainly food safety is at the top of the list of positions we want to fill. And we are aggressively working on that this week.
There is a vetting process, as I'm sure you can appreciate, that involves a number of different entities and players, that has to be respected. This is one of the things I've learned in the last week; this job is a little different than being governor. When you are the governor of a state you can basically appoint people and put it into place and into effect immediately. That is not the case when you are the Secretary of Agriculture. There are a number of processes that you have to go through.
So first and foremost, we are committed to making this happen as quickly as we can. Secondly as to your question, there is no question in my mind, and I think in the minds of many people in Congress and throughout the country, that our food safety inspection system, regulatory system, needs to be modernized. And the goal and the challenge I would lay before the under secretary in that area would be to work with a wide variety of folks in a participatory and collaborative way, as proposed by the President, and in a transparent way to address the foundation of our food safety system, which is how we inspect and how we regulate food products.
I think before there can be any conversation about merging of entities or a single agency or anything of that sort, you've got to get the foundation right; you've got to lay the foundation right. And so the first order of business as I see it is to lay that foundation properly.
We need a system that is focused on pathogens recognition. We need a system that recognizes as quickly as possible problems and to be able to contain those problems as quickly as possible. You mentioned a number of issues that the FDA is dealing with. The issue involving peanut butter for example was initially in nine states. Now it's over half the country, and it's causing obviously a lot of concern.
While there is nothing connected directly with USDA, it's not a product that we necessarily regulate, it is a product that could potentially get into some of the systems that we are responsible for, the school lunch programs and nutrition programs. So we want to make sure that everybody is aware of the concerns about peanut butter and are taking the steps necessary to guard against it.
A modernized system would have as a goal first of all prevention, early detection if it can't be prevented, and mitigation of any adverse impacts if something occurs. And that will be the challenge we lay before the under secretary that we appoint.
MODERATOR: And our final question today, Mr. Secretary, comes from Jerry Hagstrom from Congress Daily.
REPORTER: Good morning, Mr. Secretary. Just two questions about timing. The first one is: you mentioned that you are reopening the payment limits rule or extending the comment period. Could you tell us how long it will be extended for, what the final date is for accepting comments?
And secondly, you also mentioned that you're interested in taking public comment on COOL. Now that had closed as I understand it because the final rule was issued. Are you reopening that process, or are you just expecting informal comments to come to you directly?
SEC. VILSACK: I want to make sure that what I said is understood. As it relates to the payment limits, we are extending that for 60 days. And the reason we are extending it for 60 days and focusing on future crop years and not the current crop year is that we want people to have sufficient opportunity to comment on the rule, allow us to make sure that in future years after the 2009 crop year that we do all that we can possibly do to make sure that payments that farmers are entitled to receive are received by those entitled to receive them, and that we significantly limit and reduce the number of times that payments are going to people that are not eligible. And that is the purpose for that.
All I have said about COOL, and I want to be clear about this, is that it is within the purview of the memorandum and memo received from the White House requiring us to review regulations and rules that are in place or have been in place or could potentially be put in place. That rule is currently under review as part of that overall effort. We have made no specific decision as it relates to COOL. When and if we do make a decision you folks will find out about it. Obviously, we'll let you know. That's just simply being reviewed, as is the case with every other rule and regulation that was enacted or adopted or proposed in the waning days of the last Administration.
MODERATOR: And any final comments as we wrap up today, sir?
SEC. VILSACK: Well, I'm looking forward to this challenge. As I said, we are anxious to put our team together to get to work because there's quite a bit of work to do, as this conversation this morning has suggested. And I'm looking forward to the challenge.
I think this is an enormous opportunity for us to modernize the workforce and workplace at USDA; to create a sustainable, safe, sufficient, and nutritious food supply for all Americans and particularly focused on our children; to make sure that USDA is in a national leadership position in climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies, with a focus on renewable energy and biofuels; and to send a message to rural communities around the country that we are interested in investing and making them 21st century communities with access to modern infrastructure, the modern tools of doing business, and expanded housing and business opportunities.
I'm looking forward to the challenge. Thanks, Larry.
MODERATOR: Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.
I'm Larry Quinn bidding you a good morning from Washington.