Washington Insider-- Tuesday

Biden Team Reaches Out to Biofuels Interests

Here's a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN's well-placed observer.

Biden Team Reaches Out to Biofuels Interests

The transition team for the incoming Biden administration has held calls with biofuel groups, discussing issues such as a low-carbon climate vision, according to Reuters.

The conversations with biofuel trade groups, biofuels company POET, ag groups and Biden's choice to head EPA, Michael Regan, have centered mostly on boosting access to fuels with higher ethanol blends.

The discussions also included the testy issue of compliance with the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).

Biofuel interests have expressed optimism at the incoming Biden administration in the wake of the big increase in exemptions granted by the Trump administration for small refiners relative to their RFS obligations. However, court actions have limited those exemptions and are expected to further temper them in the future.

Northeast, Midwest Would Lose Seats in Latest Census Estimate

New York would lose two congressional seats, according to population estimates released recently by the Census Bureau, making the state the biggest loser in the next apportionment if the official count comes out the same.

Using the estimate to apportion the 435 seats in the House, seven states would gain congressional seats while nine states would lose them. California would lose a congressional seat for the first time in its history, according to the estimate. The other states losing seats: Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Minnesota.

Texas would gain three seats and Florida two. North Carolina, Colorado, Montana, Arizona and Oregon would also gain seats.

Alabama would have the slimmest margin of any state, holding onto its 7th congressional seat by about 6,000 people. Apportionment under the same estimate produced last year had Alabama losing that seat.

Washington Insider: Food Safety News on Vilsack Nomination

In a substantially supportive commentary last week, Food Safety News -- which very closely follows safety concerns at USDA -- wrote that President-elect Biden's selection of Tom Vilsack brings focus on a candidate with a proven food safety record "filled with accomplishments in spite of a ding or two."

The report noted that Vilsack already is one of the longest serving cabinet members to work as Secretary of Agriculture, so the request that he serve again in that capacity opens the former USDA boss to considerable scrutiny, including his food safety record.

Food safety is one of USDA's critical missions, FSN notes with its Food Safety and Inspection Service charged with providing inspections for meat and poultry processing along with production oversight for some egg and some fish products. The agency has a budget of about $1 billion a year for food safety that covers about 10,000 employees, most assigned to inspect private establishments subject to federal regulation.

Before his first appointment as secretary of agriculture, Vilsack was the governor of Iowa, an office which included food safety responsibilities such as restaurant inspections. FSN is moderately critical of one Vilsack decision to allow Taylor's restaurant in Marshalltown, IA, to use a "cooking vessel" to produce Maid-Rite "loose meat" sandwiches which have been an Iowa favorite since the 1920s.

The original cooking process used a vessel with a design flaw that allowed some cross-contamination. When Vilsack left the governor's office, the state withdrew the waiver and Taylor's Maid-Rite received red violations on its post-Vilsack inspections. It took the state several years to resolve that food safety situation, FSN says.

However, FSN gave Vilsack mostly high marks on other decisions. For example, he helped select a USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety -- the highest-level food safety job in the federal government. Dr. Elisabeth Hagen was confirmed in that position by the U.S. Senate in August 2010 and accounted for significant accomplishments -- Vilsack certainly shares in that credit, FSN says. Most notable was Hagen's work to bring six additional strains of E. coli under USDA regulation and to require mechanically tenderized beef labeling. She also updated Salmonella performance standards for poultry and put forward the first-ever standard for Campylobacter.

FSN noted that when Hagen left USDA for the private sector in December 2013, the administration did not formalize a replacement. Brian Ronholm, deputy undersecretary under Hagan, continued in that role and FSIS Administrator Al Almanza was named as a deputy undersecretary.

At the time, some top FSIS managers criticized the decision not to provide a "confirmed Under Secretary for Food Safety, FSN says. But it also notes that "Vilsack was credited as being fully engaged in food safety and that he provided critical leadership for significant food safety updates." Updated included tighter regulatory requirements and enhanced consumer engagement about safe food handling practices. FSN says there also were operational changes that helped keep unsafe food out of commerce, including the implementation of advanced testing methods and a greater focus on mislabeling.

In 2016, USDA issued the first-ever pathogen reduction standards for poultry parts, including chicken breasts and wings. While performance standards for whole chickens had been in place since 1996, these standards did not address the higher Salmonella levels that can occur as poultry is processed into parts commonly sold separately -- which represents 80 percent of the chicken available for purchase. Establishing this new standard for chicken parts was credited with reducing exposure to Salmonella and Campylobacter and lowering the potential for foodborne illness in the United States.

In 2012, USDA required that meat and poultry companies hold all products undergoing laboratory analysis until microbial and chemical tests for harmful hazards are completed. Implementing this test and hold policy has prevented a number of recalls and reduced significantly consumer exposure to unsafe meat products.

Vilsack's food safety record also includes upgraded technology and internal tracking and reporting systems, strengthening collaborations between agencies, and introducing consumer-facing tools to help protect families from foodborne illness.

"People should not confuse his understated approach as having a lack of knowledge or compassion related to food safety issued," says one national food safety expert. "His previous experience at USDA will give him a significant head start and allow him to apply lessons learned from his previous tenure toward resolving critical pending issues, including the line speed."

Vilsack is well regarded across much of agriculture but is less popular among several groups with increasingly important social issues -- so, there likely will be at least some excitement at his confirmation hearings -- which producers should watch closely, Washington Insider believes.

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