An Exclusive Interview: USDA Secretary Mike Johanns
By Sam Gazdziak, Senior Editor
The new Secretary of Agriculture discusses the issues surrounding the meat and poultry industries with The NATIONAL PROVISIONER.
Department of Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns isn’t a newcomer to the agricultural industry. The son of a dairy farmer, he spent 18 years growing up and working on the family farm, and his passion for agriculture has carried over into his political career.
As the governor of Nebraska from 1999 through 2005, Johanns was a strong advocate for rural communities, farmers, and ranchers. He signed into law the “Agricultural Opportunities and Value-Added Partnership Act,” supported the development of a hydroponic produce facility, and led eight delegations of Nebraska government, business, and agricultural leaders on trade missions to foreign countries, including Japan, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, and Australia.
Since being appointed USDA Secretary on January 21, 2005, Johanns has worked to end the multi-nation border closure of American beef, along with restoring the import of Canadian beef into the United States. He has also proposed a National Animal Identification System (NAIS), saying that “a system that will allow us to pinpoint, track, and isolate threats to health is enormously important, and this issue is too important for us to get it wrong.”
Here are the highlights of this exclusive interview with USDA Secretary Mike Johanns.
You come from a strong agricultural background. How has that prepared you for overseeing the USDA?
MJ: Well, the first thing was it gave me the right approach to life. Growing up on a dairy farm, you certainly learn discipline and a commitment to purpose. So from a personal side, it’s a great preparation.
On the professional side, those 18 years on the farm instilled my love for agriculture. I’ve never gotten very far away from it, even though my professional life led me away from the farm. I ended up being the governor of a very ag state, Nebraska. I worked ag policy aggressively for those six years. That all started in the ‘50s and ‘60s with my background on the dairy farm.
What are your goals in working with the meat and poultry industries?
MJ: The meat and poultry industries are outstanding industries, and it’s going to be a very natural fit for me. One of the things I would point out is the USDA does have regulatory jurisdiction over the companies involved in those industries. Our job is to ensure that meat and poultry products are safe, wholesome, accurately labeled for the benefit of the American consumers, and to make sure that they are in compliance with all federal laws.
Food safety involves everybody in the food chain. It truly is a farm-to-table proposition. We’re going to do everything possible to make sure that food safety is always paramount, and that we work with the industry as aggressively as we can to make sure that we’re paying attention to the food-safety issues.
What are some of the major challenges affecting these industries?
MJ: One of my greatest challenges is I have a responsibility to restore normal trade relationships relative to beef. When one cow was found with BSE in 2003, many of our trading partners closed their borders to our beef. I’ve very pleased to report that since then many of them have reopened their borders. In fact, we have recovered the majority of that market, but we still have work to do. We had good news recently. We had Taiwan, Egypt, Lebanon, and Oman open their markets to our beef, and we’re excited about that.
We’re spending a lot of time relative to Japan and Korea. That will be about 78 percent of the remaining market. We’ve been very aggressively pursuing this. We asked ourselves and the world to base decisions on good science, and I really believe the United States can be the leader in delivering that message to our international trading partners. When we talk to Japan about reopening their borders to beef, we talk about science. Based upon good science, our beef is absolutely safe.
We’re also spending a significant amount of effort doing everything we can to work with our trading partners in Canada. Again, we looked very carefully at the science involved, and the conclusion is inescapable: Canadian beef is safe for the consumer. It is safe for animals in our country. The goal is to normalize trade relations based on sound science and consumer protection.
How did the process of Taiwan and other countries to open their borders take place? Will that snowball into getting Japan and Korea into opening their borders?
MJ: There is a certain amount of momentum that is achieved when one country after another reopens their borders. That’s very positive, and I’m very gratified that we’ve made this progress since I’ve become USDA secretary.
The process is pretty straightforward. We sit down with these countries at a very technical level. We provide them with the scientific information that we possess, and we answer any technical or scientific questions they raise about human health issues or animal health issues. In some cases, we’ve actually had folks from other countries in our country examining our processing facilities. Country after country has said, ‘You’re right, we see safety here for the consumer, and we don’t see any risk,’ and then the decision is made to reopen the border.
What more can be done to help increase the export sales of meat and poultry products?
MJ: Fortunately, when it comes to meat and poultry, I have the really wonderful situation of having producers and processors that produce and process a very high-quality product. People enjoy our meat and our poultry, as I do as a consumer.
What more can we do? We need to always be vigilant on the sanitary issues. We need to base our own decisions on good science. Science is the international language, so when we are able to convince countries that good decision-making for human health and animal health is based upon science, that’s a real success story for us. Then there’s the marketing part of it, which the private sector does so well, and we do some of that at the USDA. We have programs across the world to assist in dealing with issues. In 75 foreign countries, we have a presence in the USDA. All of those things, we believe, is the right course of action to grow this industry.
You recently introduced the NAIS (National Animal Identification System). Could you describe the NAIS program, and what the benefits are going to be in the industry?
MJ: The industry is becoming very ready for animal identification. States responded well. We provided some financial assistance, and what we saw was very encouraging. When I’m around producers, they indicate they are ready for animal identification. I was with a group in Boise, ID, recently and they said, ‘’Mike, we’re ready. I think we can even do this faster than the 2009 target that’s been set by the USDA.’
In this day and age when we do so much business in foreign trade, we need the ability to identify trace an animal very quickly, identifying where it came from — where it has been, and where it is at today. Many countries have moved toward animal identification. Canada is a perfect example. They use it as a marketing tool. They promote it as an item that is helpful and a positive thing. I think the day has arrived that our country needs to move to animal ID.
What has R-CALF’s feedback been about this ID system?
MJ: It’s hard to sometimes figure out what their message is. They are very much isolationists. They are doing everything they can to protect a very small part of the beef industry in the United States, really risking the rest of the beef industry. Whether it’s animal ID or the lawsuits they file, their positions are very inconsistent. On any given day, I’d hate to quote what their view of the world is because it could change the next day.
They made a big deal out of Canada and kept trying to relate this [BSE findings] to human health concerns when there was no human health concern. Then they admitted in a recent filing that they never argued about human health. They struggle to get their message straight. I think the bottom line is this: This is a very small part of the industry, and their goal is to protect their pocketbook at the risk of the rest of the beef industry, and that’s unfortunate. (Note: R-CALF has since stated that it was “encouraged” by the flexibility of the NAIS proposal.)
They have been asking for 100 percent voluntary BSE testing. What is your position on voluntary BSE testing?
MJ: They may change their position tomorrow because now that they’ve acknowledged that they’ve never argued about human health risk, I’m not sure why they’d ever want to do 100 percent testing. It’s not scientifically based. It’s not justified under any international standard out there. Quite honestly, I’m not sure why you’d want to have cattle producers pay more money for something that isn’t scientifically or economically justified. It doesn’t make any sense. I think their message hammers the small producer out there.
The big producer is going to figure out how to deal with whatever the rules are, but the little guy who is running a few hundred units or maybe feeding 1,500 cattle a year, how will they ever comply with these requirements? I just think R-CALF stands for more consolidation in the industry and is really hurting the little guy. Everything they say just leads me to believe they’re headed in a direction where I just don’t believe that’s where we want our industry to end up.
They are really supporting a cattle industry that has very few processors left. The producers left will be very large producers. Again, the closing of the border is resulting in small processing operations laying people off, cutting hours, going out of business. In an industry that has really struggled with a lot of consolidation in the last ten to fifteen years, their whole message is to consolidate it more, and I can’t imagine how that’s good for the industry. I believe we need robust competition, and they believe in something different, something that’s got a huge downside. I think we’ll look back in five to ten years and look at this period of time and say that R-CALF was the biggest impetus of consolidation in our lifetimes.
What is the result you would like to see concerning the currently closed Canadian border, and why do you think that would be the best result for the industry?
MJ: My goal with the Canadian border is the same goal I have for Japan and Korea. In beef trade issues, we base our decisions upon science. Not upon politics, not upon who’s pressuring who, but upon good, thoughtful science, always remembering that human health is our top priority. We went through a very extensive, thoughtful, comprehensive risk analysis and economic analysis, and we reached a conclusion at the USDA — which became a basis for our rule-making — that, in fact, reopening this border [to Canada] did not pose a risk to human health or to animal health.
These border closings were the result of a small number of cattle being tested positive for BSE. What can be done to lessen such extreme reactions?
MJ: There is a tremendous amount of support for the approach we have taken, which again is to base our decisions on risk analysis and thoughtful scientific process. I believe we are having significant success in taking that message worldwide. We understand BSE so much better than we did even five years ago. We understand that a ruminant-to-ruminant feed ban has a tremendous impact. We understand that removing specified risk materials has a tremendous impact.
The world is really figuring BSE out, and that’s positive. The number of BSE cases is on the dramatic decline because these things are in place. I’m very proud to say that because of our approach, we have really led the way. I’m very encouraged that the world is coming to a better understanding. You put the right things in place, and you almost take the human risk away from a BSE standpoint.
If tomorrow a cow in the United States tests positive for BSE, what steps would the USDA take to prevent it from getting worse?
MJ: We’ve already taken those steps. There are many firewalls in place. We’ve done significant surveillance of the herd in the United States. We’ve tested about 381,000 animals. We thought we would find additional cases of BSE. We have not, to date. We have tested very high-risk animals, but we have not found another case.
Is it possible that there is another case out there? It is possible, but again, we have so many firewalls in place to protect human health, that I could say what I said on December 24, 2003, when I was governor of Nebraska. I said that the beef supply is absolutely safe, and it won’t change my eating habits a bit. In fact, on the evening of December 24, 2003, my wife Stephanie and I did what we have done every year that we have been together, because that’s our anniversary. We enjoyed a great steak and never thought twice about it, and that would be the case today.
How have the meat and poultry industries adapted to meet bioterrorism concerns?
MJ: One of the things that I always say about bioterrorism, whether it’s ourselves at the federal level, folks at the state level, or folks in the private industry, we’ve done many great things, especially since 9/11.
But there are many things yet to be done, and we recognize that. Today, we can tell people we have a testing process and facilities in place on a nationwide basis. If a veterinarian in the middle of the state sees something that he or she doesn’t like or is worried about terrorism, either from overseas or internally, we can respond to that quickly. We can identify what we’re dealing with, we can isolate that issue, and then we can recover from the situation — whatever it is.
Producers are so much better-educated in issues related to terrorism. There’s so much more information out there than there was a couple of years ago. The president has been a true friend of the ag industry, because he continues to invest large amounts of money at a time when savings is really the goal of the federal government to deal with the deficit. This president has said this has to be a priority for our nation, protecting our food supply from terrorist acts, so he continues to provide the funding that is necessary. Is there more work to be done? Yes. Have we come a long way? We certainly have come a long way. Many of the things that have occurred have been very positive.
What more can packers and processors do to improve security?
MJ: Good process is always the key. If we can convince producers and packers and processors that they need to be vigilant, that they need to pay attention to the rules and regulations that are out there that we promulgate here at the federal level, we can all work in partnership to deal with that issue. I meet with people in the industry on an ongoing basis. I went through a packing plant in Utah just this week. I see the things they have in place, the caution that they exert. I see good partnership, and we just need to continue to work that, do everything we can to make sure we are all doing what we need to do. NP