Heading for confirmation

by Josh Sosland
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WASHINGTON — The importance of nutrition in addressing the nation’s health and wellness issues, the need to advance biofuel technology and a commitment to taking a balanced and more fully representative approach toward farm policy were among points emphasized Jan. 14 by Tom Vilsack, president-elect Barack Obama’s nominee for secretary of agriculture.

Mr. Vilsack appeared headed for easy confirmation following a 2½-hour hearing conducted by the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. The nominee drew strongly supportive comments from Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa and Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the committee chairman and ranking minority member, respectively.

"I urge my colleagues to favorably report your nomination out of committee and confirm it on the Senate floor as soon as possible," Mr. Chambliss said.

In his introductory remarks, Mr. Harkin emphasized the importance of health and nutrition as a responsibility of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and in the Senate agenda for the coming year. While the current farm bill extends beyond the date of the next presidential election in 2012, Congress in the current year will need to consider reauthorization of child nutrition programs, including school breakfast and school lunch programs, as well as the WIC program, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children.

In asking Mr. Vilsack about nutrition issues, Mr. Harkin emphasized his own views that changes need to be made. He said too many schools have "vending machines loaded with unhealthy options" and a la carte cafeteria options that undermine the objectives of the government meal programs.

Mr. Vilsack said he already has held a meeting on the subject with Tom Daschle, Mr. Obama’s nominee as the next secretary of health and human services.

"If we’re going to address the health care crisis in a meaningful and comprehensive way, wellness and nutrition will have to be part of it," Mr. Vilsack said.

Commenting on a federal program to put fresh fruits and vegetables in schools, Mr. Vilsack said the government should work to ensure availability.

"One of the challenges will be to ensure that people know fruits and vegetables are available and to ensure distribution is in place that will allow the quantity and quality to make this possible," Mr. Vilsack said.

Asked a variety of questions about biofuels, Mr. Vilsack expressed support for finding ways to increase farm income, including biofuels.

"Biofuels have raised some serious issues and challenges about whether there is a linkage between using crops for fuel and rising food costs," he said. "We need to educate consumers that there are many reasons food prices have gone up that are not necessarily related to biofuels."

He went on to say that meeting the mandates in the existing law will be difficult "unless we do a better job of research and development for second and third generation feedstocks."

He expressed the view that the U.S.D.A. has an important role to play in helping provide the focus as well as the research to help meet biofuels requirements, whatever they are.

Asked about questions that have been raised regarding ethanol and air emissions, Mr. Vilsack said he needed to explore the issue more deeply but answered broadly in a way that applies to emissions, agricultural biotechnology and a host of other issues he will face.

"We should be making decisions based on sound science," he said. "We should be comfortable with the data and comfortable with the science. I think that’s the only way to make a good decision."

Pressed about helping growers of specialty crops, Mr. Vilsack said he would represent the interests of agriculture "in all parts of the country." When Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas countered with a question about major crops, Mr. Vilsack said he strongly supports programs for wheat, cotton and corn.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, January 20, 2009, starting on Page 16. Click here to search that archive.

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