Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack faced three hours of questioning from members of the House Agriculture Committee in a hearing March 5. Although many questions focused on the implementation of sequestration cuts scheduled to go into effect, members also probed into his views on school lunches, EPA's release of CAFO data and the Congressional Budget Office's updated scores on farm bills.
Vilsack said notices are being sent to food safety inspectors this week regarding projected furloughs. Despite calls from members for the secretary to limit the fallout from the sequester, Vilsack said that because of how the sequester is written, he has no choice but to cut funds from each account.
Unlike previous sequesters, the current provision does not allow for agency heads to make any distinctions on what programs can be cut or maintained. Many members asked for Vilsack's advice on what flexibility he would prefer, as many believe sequestration flexibility could be written into any continuing resolution on government funding set to be passed in the next few weeks.
Vilsack was questioned as to whether or not the agency weighed in on the decision by the recent move by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to release data to environmental groups on livestock operations including business and personal information after it pulled the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) rule last year.
Speaking of EPA's release of the information under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Vilsack said EPA realized it "probably shouldn't have been done" and that USDA expressed concern about the release. He noted that the agency wasn't "aware of the fact that it could be released as it was" and was open to suggestions from Rep. Rick Crawford (R., Ark.) to protect the possible misuse of the information now that it's out there.
An opponent of the new school lunch standards, Rep. Steve King, (R., Iowa) asked Vilsack's rationale for meat rationing and challenged the calorie caps. Vilsack responded that in light of concerns from schools, the agency is providing some degree of flexibility in how the rule is implemented.
Vilsack reminded members that the changes are about providing a balanced plate with a greater "balance between fruits, vegetables, grains and proteins." He added that tweaks to the rule have provided school districts more choices on their protein choices.