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Release No. 0018.02
 
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of
Secretary of Agriculture Ann M. Veneman On Washington Journal C-Span
Thursday, January 24, 2002

  STEVE SCULLY, host: We want to welcome Ann Veneman, the Secretary of Agriculture, to the program.   Thanks for being with us.

Secretary ANN VENEMAN (U.S. Department of Agriculture): Thanks for having me.

SCULLY:   Now that the House and Senate are back in session, one of the issues on the agenda is the Farm Bill.   What's in the measure and what's the likelihood that Congress will act on it this year?

VENEMAN:   Well, I hope that Congress will act quickly on the Farm Bill.   It is pending before the Senate.   The House passed a Farm Bill in October, and the Senate then took it up in committee and proceeded to the floor with debate on the bill in December.   It became, unfortunately, a very partisan debate.   And in the end, the Congress was unable to reach agreement before the Christmas break.   So we are hopeful that the Congress will come back, come together and reach a bipartisan consensus on a Senate version of the bill and then the ultimate bill will be worked out in the conference between the House and the Senate.   And we're hopeful that that will happen very quickly as well.

SCULLY:   Why--I think almost 70 years ago--did Congress begin subsidizing farmers?   And why do we do it today?

VENEMAN:   Well, farming is a very uncertain industry. Farmers and ranchers provide the food and fiber for this country.   And, in fact, they provide food and fiber for the entire world because we export a lot of what we produce. And because of the uncertainty, Congress began to provide a safety net for farmers, to help them through times of uncertainty.   And that's continued through successive Farm Bills over the years.   And it continues to get refined and revised and changed and actually is very all-encompassing. It encompasses much more than just a safety net for farmers.   Whether it's the food stamp program authorization or environmental programs that help farmers, it really encompasses a wide variety of programs, and has been expanded quite substantially over the years.


SCULLY:   There is a piece this morning, dateline is Arkansas, John Lancaster from The Washington Post, he talks about subsidies given to grain and cotton producers, for example.   (Visual of newspaper article entitled:   More Subsidy Money Going to Fewer Farms) And he writes that numbers tell a story of unintended consequences.   According to the Department of Agriculture, 47 percent of commodity payments now flow to the large commercial operations with an average household income of about $135,000 a year.   These farms make up 8 percent of the nation's 2.2 million farms.   Sixty percent of American farms get no crop subsidies.

VENEMAN:   Well, that's part of the debate that's going on in Congress right now, is about how should the money that's being given to farmers, to help them as a safety net, be allocated?   One of the things that the department did earlier, just last fall, was to put together a book called "Food and Agriculture Policy:   Taking Stock for a New Century."   One of the things that we did in this book was to discuss the whole array of programs and policies that impact agriculture today, including the safety net programs and some of their unintended consequences.   Sometimes today,   there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to farm programs, and we need to look at having a broad array of farmers producing a vast array of crops, different kinds of sizes and commodity mixes, and our programs really need to be looked at to reach the broadest array of farmers.

SCULLY:   Our guest is Ann Veneman.   Our phone lines are open.   We are dividing them regionally, at 202-737-0001 for those of you who live in the Eastern or Central time zones. If you live in the Mountain and Pacific time zones, 202-737-0002.   And if you're a farmer, we have set aside a phone line at 202-628-0205.

When the president unveils his budget, how much will the Department of Agriculture receive?

VENEMAN:   Well, can't predetermine what the president's going to unveil, as you know.   But certainly we worked closely with the OMB, talked about some of the priorities.   There has been a budget agreement on what would be included in terms of the spending that would be allocated in   a new Farm Bill.   That's been agreed to by the budget committees and by the aministration. So that section is set.

I think we'll see additional spending in the WIC program (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) that's already been talked about by the president.   We'll see a proposal with regard additional spending for food stamps for legal immigrants, after they've been in the country for five years.   But we'll also see additional spending for things like pest and disease prevention and food safety, things that have become even more important since September 11th, and the biosecurity of our food system.   So we're very focused on those kinds of issues as well, because they are so important to farmers and ranchers, being able to protect the product that they produce from farm to the consumer.

SCULLY:   The Washington Post reported this morning that Congress may approve up to $16 billion for your budget, does that sound about right?

VENEMAN:   Well, that could be within range.   Yes.

SCULLY: Earlier in the month, you were talking about more money for homeland security.   You talked about it a moment ago.   And yesterday, former Governor Ridge, outlined $300 million to the Agriculture Department for food safety.   What else is the money going to be used for?

VENEMAN:   Well--

SCULLY:   How do you protect America's food supply?


VENEMAN:   There was additional money included in the defense appropriations supplemental allocated to the Department of Agriculture for homeland security related issues.   As you know, we in the Department of Agriculture have been dealing with some of these issues all year long, because of the threat of foot-and-mouth disease that raised its ugly head in Europe earlier last year.   And we took tremendous precautions to make sure that that disease did not enter this country.

After September 11th, we looked through the security of our food systems again; we now need to protect against unwanted pests, diseases and any kind of food safety threat, not only unintentionally introduced into our food chain, but intentionally introduced into our food chain.   So we're working very closely with industry.   We're working with all of the parts of the food chain to determine how we can really put forward best management practices for everyone from farmers to processors to transporters to the retailers, to continue to maintain the safest food supply anywhere in the world--that we have in this country.

(Graphic on screen) For More Information go to http://www.usda.gov

SCULLY:   Our guest is Ann M. Veneman, who is a native of Modesto, California.   She's a graduate of the University of California at Davis, earned her master's at UC-Berkeley and her law degree from the Hastings College of Law, part of the University of California system.   Is the job what you expected?

VENEMAN:   Well, certainly the first year on the job had many more surprises than I would have anticipated. Of course, as I talked about dealing with foot-and-mouth disease, and nobody ever could have imagined in their wildest dreams September 11th . Certainly USDA has been as involved as anyone in working on the homeland security issues with Governor Ridge.   And we truly appreciate his leadership on these issues.

But again, over the past year, we've also engaged in the new Farm Bill debate.   We've begun a new round of trade negotiations, which are critical to farmers and ranchers because we depend upon the export market, the marketplace, for so much of U.S. food and agriculture products in this country.

SCULLY:   How many people are employed at the Agriculture Department?

VENEMAN:   There's about 125,000 employed at the Department of Agriculture.

SCULLY:   And compared to other departments, how big is it?

VENEMAN:   It's one of the larger departments of government, probably third or fourth.   But we run a very wide range of programs.   And that's what many people don't understand.   About a third of the employees that we have are in the United States Forest Service. Many people don't know that Smokey Bear and the Forest Service are under the jurisdiction of the US Department of Agriculture.   So when you talk about the number of employees, that's somewhat misleading, when you just think about agriculture. We also run, as I said before, the Food Stamp programs, the Women, Infants and Children's, school lunch, school breakfast, and all of those programs are within the purview of the Department of Agriculture.   We also have about 7,600 meat and poultry inspectors.   In every meat and poultry plant in the country, we have USDA inspectors who work every day to maintain the safety of our meat and poultry supply.


SCULLY: Our guest, Ann M. Veneman, is former secretary of the California Department of Food & Agriculture.   We got a call from Bismarck, North Dakota, a farmer.   Good morning.

Unidentified Caller #1 (Bismarck, North Dakota):   Good morning.   I've got a question for Ann Veneman on why she's stonewalled in having us setting any loan rates for the coming year on commodities, when she knows full well that farmers get their operating loans through banks and they need to know what these loan rates are before they can get them.   And how long is it gonna take, does she feel, that she's gonna set them before she--or what is her time period before she's gonna set these loan rates, so farmers know what, when and how they can go in and get their operating money.   Thank you.

VENEMAN:   These loan rates have been set at various times during the year.   They will come within a range and I think farmers have some degree of certainty, within a range.   I understand your question. I understand your concerns and your need to talk with your bankers.   However, because of the pending action of the Congress on a Farm Bill, which may impact 2002 crops, after consultation with both the Senate and the House Ag committees, it was determined that the most prudent course would be to delay the decision on a loan rate until we determined whether or not action was going to be taken on a Farm Bill this year that will affect this year's crop.   And so this decision's been delayed for a relatively short time period; I can't tell you how long at this point, to determine what action the Congress may take.

Again, it was determined that this would be the best course of action to create the least uncertainty for farmers over the long term, not knowing how the Congress was going to act on the Farm Bill this year.

SCULLY:   If you want to e-mail us, our address is journal@cspan.org.   Ann Veneman will be with us for another 25 minutes.

Findlay, Ohio, good morning.

Unidentified Caller #2 (Findlay, Ohio):   Yes, good morning, Ann.   My question to you is I'm from a rural area with a lot of farming and over the years I've watched the small farmers deteriorate and the large corporations come in and take over.   These farmers--the small farmers are struggling here.   Last year they raised a lot of hogs.   They didn't even break even on it.   They're shutting their operations down.   And I'm wondering if corporate farming is the--the direction that this country's going to and destroying the small farmer, which is the backbone of this country.   I'm in the farming community.   I employ farmers because they can't live on that--what they're getting now.   And I just wonder if this is the direction that we're going to.   Thank you.

VENEMAN:   Well thank you for that question because I know there is a lot of concern about that issue, out in many parts of the country.   And there have been many farms that have gotten much larger.   And sometimes we talk about unintended consequences of farm programs that give more money to farmers and allow them to get larger.   And sometimes the smaller farmers don't get what they need to operate.


One of the new proposals that's come up in two or three of the Senate bills is the concept of a farm savings account, which would allow farmers of all levels to put some money away with a certain amount matched by the government.   And itwould allow farmers to have some amount of cushion that they could put away in the good years and it would then be available for the years where there are more difficult times, because we know that farming is such an uncertain business.   That's been a concept that many of the senators have thought would be a good one to include to really help some of the smaller farmers.

We're also seeing a number of smaller farmers begin to tie into new marketing opportunities; whether it's tying in directly to farmers markets or niche markets with specialty vegetables or specialty kinds of crops that really target certain markets, we're seeing smaller farmers really emerge in some of these areas.

The whole structure is changing, but I think there are opportunities.   I do agree that we are aware   there are a number of smaller farmers who are having difficulty.   And we want to see programs that will help those programs over the long run, whether it's farm savings account or whether it's conservation programs that can help farmers with working farmlands. That's a concept that we talked a lot about in our book on farm policy--the need to have conservation programs that would allow farmers to really have benefits that would help them on their working farmlands to address environmental issues.

So the other issue that I think is important for rural America, which is addressed in a Farm Bill, is the whole issue of rural development, and having rural development programs that help rural communities thrive and succeed. That doesn't just mean the agriculture sector, but helping get new kinds of industries into rural America so that the communities in rural America can thrive.

SCULLY:   A couple of numbers for you.   The budget for the US Department of Agriculture overall this year is $76 billion; the proposed increase by the Bush administration that we talked about earlier is projected at about $16 billion.   Going back to the Washington Post story this morning, the Bush administration, and this is a quote, "has bowed to congressional demands for $73 billion in new farm spending over the next decade.   That is almost three times the $26-billion cost of the landmark education package President Bush also signed into law this past month.   And more than $40 million would go to crop subsidies."

Let's get a call from Brooks, California, the home state of Ann M. Veneman, the Secretary of Agriculture, good morning.

Unidentified Caller #3 (Brooks, California):   Good morning. I'm so glad to be talking with you.   -I would like to ask the question that's a very large concern of many of us in northern California. It seems that agriculture is being dismantled either through the Cal-Fed Project and through Jim Neilsen's (sp) bill, SB1086.   The Sacramento River is targeted for about 133,000 acres of environmental restoration, which many of us in the northern part of the state feel is going to create a lot of flooding.   And also, when I attended a Cal-Fed meeting a couple of years ago, the lack of storage that has been part of the Cal-Fed Program, I asked how can the $24 billion at that time of the economy be ignored?   And the people in the front of the room didn't really have any answer for me.   But the fellow that was sitting next to me tapped me on the arm, and he says, "the Silicon Valley economy is going to pick right up where--where California agriculture leaves off."

SCULLY:   I'm going to stop you there.   Ann Veneman is a native of the state and a former state agriculture secretary.   Familiar with the issue?


VENEMAN:   I am.   And you're right.   The caller is right.   California does have a very large ag economy, the largest in the country.   It is now about a $27 billion agriculture economy in California.   Very high value, products very diverse, and very dependant on water supply. The Cal-Fed issue is an issue of state and federal regulators over the water systems of California. We have tried to come together and determine the long-term future of water in California.   It's been a several-year debate without any kind of consensus agreement coming forward at this point.   And you're absolutely right.   One of the big issues is the need for more water storage in California.

There are three competing needs for water in California.   There is the urban need, the environmental need, and the agriculture need.   And what the Cal-Fed process is intending to do is create win-win-win solutions for all three sectors.   In my view, one of the only ways that that can happen is to have additional storage to collect the water that we have in California and preserve it for the uses that are necessary.

SCULLY:   We have a lot of people who want to talk to you. Can I get a quick response to two e-mails?   First of all, from Kankakee, Illinois. Why don't you as a leader of agriculture in the U.S.   promote ethanol more vocally in the president's energy policy?

VENEMAN:   Very good question.   And one that we are promoting very strongly.   The president did convene an Energy Task Force within two weeks of coming into office this year.   As you know, I, as Secretary of Agriculture, was a member of that task force.   And that task force looked at the long-term energy needs for the country.   And that's necessary.   We need to determine in this country what we're going to need for the long-term energy.

Agriculture is a big user of energy.   And therefore it's very important to agriculture in this country that we have a strong energy policy.   But it also can be one of the solutions to energy in this country through biofuels such as ethanol, biodiesel.   As you know, one of the big issues this year was whether or not the president was going to grant the California waiver from using alternative fuels when the MTBE issue crisis arose.   And so, therefore, it's important to recognize that the president did not grant that waiver, giving a tremendous opportunity for ethanol in this country.

We, through our rural development programs in USDA, have continued to assist with financing for a number of ethanol plants.   And we think the president's energy policy points out that renewable sources of fuels such as ethanol should and can be a part of America's long-term energy strategy so that we are not so dependent on imported sources of fuel.

SCULLY:   One other short question from Dave Forth of North Dakota.   "You told the Oxford Farming Conference nothing will interfere with trade. Does this preclude preventative vaccination against foot and mouth?"

Oh, absolutely not. I don't remember saying that nothing would interfere with trade.   I'm sure that was taken to some extent out of context because it had to be talking about something a little broader than that.

But when we talk about diseases or pests or food safety concerns or regulatory issues that can impact our agriculture here, we certainly have the ability in this country to take any action that is scientifically justifiable to make sure that we don't get a pest or disease in this country.


For example, when foot and mouth broke out in Europe we took action immediately to suspend all imports of meat and meat products from Europe.   Now, some of   those import restrictions have been lifted, but not all. They have not yet been lifted from the UK.   We're going to start doing the analyses.

We recently had an issue with some insects that were found in some shipments of citrus.   We suspended shipment because we don't want to threaten our agriculture in this country.   Now, we take that action because there's a scientific reason.   We don't take these actions lightly but we take them when they're necessary to protect our agriculture.

SCULLY:   We're talking with Secretary of Agriculture Ann M. Veneman.   Next week Senator (tape cuts out) bill may come up before the Senate.   We'll go to a farmer in Charleston, West Virginia.

Thanks for waiting.   Good morning.

Unidentified Caller #4:   (Charleston, West Virginia):   Yes. My question to Ms. Veneman is, has the Department of Agriculture checked into the feedlots and the packing houses being owned by the same corporation in controlling the prices that we the farmers are getting out of our calves.   Here in West Virginia about the past five years we've been getting 75 cents to 80 cents a pound on the hoof for our calves, and yet when we go to the meat market at our local store we see tremendous difference in the price of hamburger or steaks that are on the shelf there. And I was wondering if you all have checked into seeing the ownerships and seeing if they're controlling the market or whatever.   Thank you.

SCULLY:   Thank you, caller.

VENEMAN:   Well, we do have regulatory authority over packers and stockyards, as you know, in the Department of Agriculture and we watch those practices to make sure that they're fair.   We also implemented just last year a new law that was passed by Congress on livestock price reporting that's looking at a whole variety of issues in terms of prices that are now reported twice daily and updated regionally throughout the country.   So that is available to people.

When you look at the price of product--the price that farmers are receiving vs. the price that consumers are paying in the grocery store B that's sometimes a bit misleading partly because the consumer today is demanding a much more ready-to-eat product and so there is much more value that's being added to the product as it comes from the farm, goes through the processing and ends up in the hands of the consumer.   And the consumer is paying for that added value, that added convenience that he or she continues to demand every day.

And so it often appears that the farmers are not getting the value and that's why in may places in agriculture today we are seeing farmers come together to find ways to get more value out of the food chain.   We see farmers coming together, for example, in beef cooperatives to say, we're going to get involved in a processing plant and we're going to get that value out of the food chain.   We've seen wheat growers in North Dakota come together and form the Dakota Pasta Growers, one of the largest pasta plants in the country, because they want to get more of that consumer food dollar. That's where we're seeing the the wonderful innovation of our farmers around the country saying we're going to find ways to get more of that food dollar, and they're coming together and becoming more integrated in the food chain as farmers.

SCULLY:   Good morning to Panama City, Florida.   You're on CSPAN.


Unidentified Caller #5 (Caller from Panama City, Florida): Yes, I'd like to get back to this 60 percent, about small farmers in the 8 percent and the one-size-fits-all. If there's 60 percent needing the subsidies, why isn't more going to them because that 8 percent looks awfully small?   And what I'm seeing in the Southland these days is that there are huge, beautiful farms and there are no longer small farms.   If you find a small farm you'll find out in most cases that it's owned by the larger farm and being farmed by migrant workers that are being treated about as shabbily as you could treat a human being.

SCULLY:   Thank you, caller.   Let me read you what is in this USA Today editorial based on the caller's point.

"Almost two-thirds of the subsidies go to 10 percent of farm owners including multi-million-dollar corporations, hobby farmers and even other government entities."

VENEMAN:   Well, that is part of the struggle that Congress is dealing with today--how do we really create a farm policy that helps as many farmers as possible, that does not accelerate the consolidation of farms, that puts the dollars in the hands of those most in need?   And I think that's why we see so much debate today on this Farm Bill, that is really trying to determine how do we best deal with the fact that we have a huge diversity of farms today--different sizes, different commodities, different regions of the country. And you picked up on this one-size-does-not-fit all and that's really the struggle that the Congress has today, to try to find policies that will help as broad a range and number of farmers as we can.

SCULLY:   Another farmer from Reserve, Louisiana.   Good morning.

Unidentified Caller #6 (Reserve, Louisiana):   Good morning, Madame Secretary.   I certainly want to congratulate you on being the first female Secretary of Agriculture.

VENEMAN:   Thank you.

Caller #6:   I think it was a tremendous appointment and I know your history coming from the department and in California and I thought you'd done an excellent job thus far and I want to congratulate you.

VENEMAN:   Well, thank you very much.

Unidentified Caller #7:   I also want to emphasize not only to you but to everybody that agriculture is extremely important to our rural economy and it's important that the federal government continue to play a strong role for us. And regardless of your size we are still family farmed and family owned going back several, several generations.   And it's only through federal involvement that we are able to maintain that family-farm structure.   And I certainly appreciate your comments about value-added products; they're just tremendously important to the future of agriculture.   And continue--continue to emphasize that we need more exports.   I will hang up and listen.

SCULLY:   Thank you, caller.   And let me go to this e-mail based on the very last point by this caller from Louisiana from Jeff Beckington of Kentucky who says, "With our competitors, namely Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and New Zealand, constantly devaluing their currencies, how can we compete?"


VENEMAN:   Well, let me first address some of the issues that the first caller talked about. I think it is important what you just pointed out, that many of these farms are still family farms, and families are operating them, sometimes multiple families.   And I think you make an important point there.

With regard to exports, it's extremely critical that everybody understand how important the export market is to agriculture.   We export 50 percent of the wheat in this country, over 40 percent of the cotton, and 30 percent of the soybeans.   So the export markets are absolutely critical. One of the areas where we see tremendous increases in export is in higher-value product, whether it's meat or oils or processed products or fruits and vegetables. That's where we see tremendous increases, because what's happening around the world is that as developing countries get more income and you see these emerging middle classes, the first thing that people buy is more food.   And we want to be positioned to sell those people what we have in this country because we have such an abundance.   We simply produce more than we can eat.

Now, addressing the issue about the strength of the dollar, there is no question that has had an impact on our exports.   And it has made it difficult, in some cases, for us to increase our market share.   But it doesn't undermine how important that overall export market is to our farmers and ranchers and the fact that we need to continue to open markets, to tear down those walls that prevent our farmers and ranchers from having access.   And we need to continue to have a growing share of the export market because that's going to be critical to the overall success of our farming sector.

SCULLY:   We'll go back to your home state of California for the Agriculture Secretary.

Good morning.

Unidentified Caller #8 (California):   Good morning.   My question is, given the importance of education in educating the school children, will you be recommending appropriating monies for the nutrition education program?

VENEMAN:   That's a very good question.   Let me talk about a couple of things here.   First of all, one of the things we tried to do when I was in California as secretary of California, was to use nutrition education to help children understand where their food comes from, because a lot of children today don't understand what role farmers play in everyone's daily life. So I think that one of the things we need to do is continue to educate people about the importance of agriculture and what it means to their ability to eat every day.   Now, on the issue of nutrition education, that's a very important issue as well.   In the Department of Agriculture, through our food and nutrition programs, the food stamp programs, and the WIC program, we do things like issuing the food pyramid, talking about how you should eat a balanced diet.   The issue of obesity continues to be one of import today, one that's continuously debated.   And so nutrition education is a very important issue, one that needs to be taught in our schools and continually reinforced, so that people will understand the importance of eating a balanced diet, of eating a broad range of--of foods--fruits, vegetables, grains, meats--and having a balance in their diet so that they can maintain a healthy lifestyle overall.

SCULLY:   Let's take a call from here in Washington.

Good morning.


Unidentified Caller #9 (Washington):   Good morning.   I just wanted to call and say that I think Secretary Veneman is doing a terrific job.

VENEMAN:   Thank you.

CALLER:   She obviously knows what she is talking about and obviously has a great deal of care for America's family farmers.   And thank you also for CSPAN.   I'll hang up and listen.

SCULLY:   Thank you, caller.

VENEMAN:   Well, I appreciate those words of support. It's been a tough year, as I've said, but we've done the best we can under the circumstances.   We will continue to do everything we can for America's farmers and ranchers.

SCULLY:   As you know, Republican Senator Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas says you should resign from your position.   Why is that?

VENEMAN:   Well, I haven't had a chance to speak with Senator Hutchinson but I feel it's a privilege to serve in this administration.   It is a tremendous Cabinet.   I feel very, very privileged to be serving this president, who I think is doing a terrific job.   And I'm going to continue to serve agriculture and the other programs we administer absolutely to the best of my ability.

SCULLY:   We have about a minute left.   We'll get a call from a farmer in Wisconsin.   Brief question, please.

Unidentified Caller #10 (Wisconsin):   Yes, I'm calling you from Menomonie, Wisconsin, and I have a couple of quick questions.   First of all, I'm not a farmer but I'm living out here in farm country.   Could I ask the Secretary a very direct question?   The reason that the family farmer is dying out here in Wisconsin and other states is that the small family farmers, especially the dairy farmers, are not getting a fair price for their milk.   You can't expect a farmer to go out there and do the milk thing and feed cows and whatnot and the cost of his production is $18 and then the government sets a price at $15.

SCULLY:   We'll stop you there and get a response.

VENEMAN:   Well, the price of commodities obviously varies in different parts of the country.   It varies with different sizes and types of farms and different locations in the country.   Obviously there are areas of the country where the price of the product sometimes does not meet the cost of production.   But like other farm commodities, the price of milk varies.   It goes up and down.   And sometimes I think that meets the cost of production, sometimes it doesn't.   And that's why we've talked about a new concept in the Farm Bill, the farm savings accounts, allowing farmers to put away some money in the good years for those times that are not as good; I think this is one that deserves some discussion as we go forward in this debate.

SCULLY:   Baltimore, good morning.

Unidentified Caller #11:   Good morning.   I'm calling because a couple of days ago a gentleman called into CSPAN...


SCULLY:   Caller, I'm actually going to have to stop you there.   The House of Representatives is going to be in session in just a moment.   We want to thank Ann M. Veneman...

VENEMAN:   Thank you.

SCULLY:   ...the Secretary of Agriculture for being with us and we hope that you will come back again.

VENEMAN:   Thanks very much for having me today.

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