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Obama Appoints Biotech Industriess’ Tom Vilsack As Agriculture Secretary

by News Director Jim Kouri

Many conservatives and watchdog groups are expressing concern — even outrage — over the nomination of former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack's nomination by President-Elect Barack Obama to the cabinet position of Secretary of Agriculture, long considered a low-key but powerful government position. Vilsack, according to The Organic Consumer's Association, was named Governor of the Year by Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), the biggest pro-genetic engineering lobby in existence.

"Vilsack is one of us 'folks' with deep Iowa roots. The question is: Does Vilsack get marching orders from common, concerned citizens or the four horsemen of the Big Ag gravy wagon: Dupont, Monsanto, ADM, Cargill?" asked OCA's Jill Richardson.

"The pick that offers the most insight into where Obama will lead the country is his selection to the most misunderstood position in the Cabinet: secretary of Agriculture," said Richardson.

Genetically engineered (GE) crops — including crops engineered to resist pests or tolerate herbicides — are widespread in the United States and around the world. Taking direction from the 1986 Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulate GE crops to ensure that they are safe.

"Watchdog groups discovered unauthorized releases of GE crops and demanded coordination among the three agencies, and additional actions. They have proposed improve oversight, as well. Personally, I fear Gov. Vilsack will not heed the wishes of these private-sector watchdogs," said political strategist Mike Baker.

Like other nations, the United States faces growing food safety challenges resulting from at least three major trends. First, imported food makes up a growing share of the food supply.

Second, consumers are increasingly eating foods that are raw or have had minimal processing and that are often associated with foodborne illness.

Third, changing demographic patterns mean that more of the US population is, and increasingly will be, susceptible to foodborne illness.

And fourth, genetically engineered crops, cloned animals, and unethical, unauthorized or surreptitious biotechnology treatment of America's food supply.

The OCA believes there are at least six reasons Vilsack is a terrible choice:

    1 – Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack's support of genetically engineered pharmaceutical crops, especially pharmaceutical corn.

    2 – The biggest biotechnology industry group, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, named Vilsack Governor of the Year. He was also the founder and former chair of the Governor's Biotechnology Partnership.

    3 – When Vilsack created the Iowa Values Fund, his first poster child of economic development potential was Trans Ova and their pursuit of cloning dairy cows.

    4 – Vilsack was the origin of the seed preemption bill in 2005, which many people in Iowa fought because it took away local government's possibility of ever having a regulation on seeds- where GE would be grown, having GE-free buffers, banning pharma corn locally, etc.

    Representative Sandy Greiner, the Republican sponsor of the bill, bragged on the House Floor that Vilsack put her up to it right after his state of the state address.

    5 – Vilsack has a glowing reputation as being a shill for agribusiness biotech giants like Monsanto. Sustainable ag advocated across the country were spreading the word of Vilsack's history as he was attempting to appeal to voters in his presidential bid. An activist from the west coast even made this youtube animation about Vilsack.

    6 – Vilsack is an ardent supporter of corn and soy based biofuels, which use as much or more fossil energy to produce them as they generate.

In recent years, both domestic and imported produce have been linked to reported outbreaks of foodborne illness. Contamination in produce is of particular concern because produce is often genetically engineered and consumed raw.

While the Food and Drug Administration has primary responsibility for ensuring the safety of both domestic and imported fresh produce, the Agriculture Department oversees the actual cultivation of that produce.

The Government Accounting Office was asked by the US Congress to examine the resources the US government has spent on fresh produce safety and how it has allocated those resources, and investigate the effectiveness of federal actions to oversee fresh produce safety.

In addition, GAO analysts were requested to investigate the extent to which planned actions to enhance fresh produce oversight address identified challenges. For this review, GAO analyzed spending data, estimates and activities data, reviewed plans, and interviewed officials and others.

Specifically, USDA and FDA do not have a formal method for sharing information that could enhance FDA's voluntary early food safety review for certain genetically engineered crops in the field trial stage and support USDA's oversight.

Also, the three agencies do not have a coordinated program for monitoring the use of marketed GE crops to determine whether the spread of genetic traits is causing undesirable effects on the environment, non-GE segments of agriculture, or food safety, as recommended by the National Research Council and others.

While conservatives have considered fresh produce safety a priority for many years, resource constraints and other work — including counterterrorism efforts and unplanned events such as foodborne illness outbreaks — have caused the federal government to delay key produce safety activities. The Agriculture Department and the FDA have no formal program devoted exclusively to fresh produce and has not consistently and reliably tracked its fresh produce spending.

Based on GAO estimates, the government spent at least $20 million and 130 staff years on fresh produce in fiscal year 2007–or about 3 percent of its food safety dollars and 4 percent of its food safety staff years. In addition, the feds had few staff dedicated solely to fresh produce safety.

Moreover, FDA acknowledged that it has not yet been able to conduct certain fresh produce work crucial to understanding the incidence of contamination of produce by pathogens such as E. coli O157:H7 or Salmonella, because it has lacked the resources to either fund its extramural research grant program or perform some critical research internally.

Finally, FDA delayed issuing final fresh-cut produce guidance at least 6 years because it had to shift staff to counterterrorism and outbreak investigation work. FDA has provided limited oversight of domestic and imported fresh produce. For example, while FDA has issued guidance for industry on recommended practices for reducing the risk of contamination during the processing of fresh-cut produce, it has not issued regulations requiring firms to take action to prevent contamination, even though some industry groups would like it to do so. FDA's intervention efforts have also been limited.

Specifically, domestic fresh produce firms were inspected infrequently. Furthermore, FDA examined less than 1 percent of the 7.6 million fresh produce lines imported from fiscal years 2002 through 2007.

Many experts do not believe Vilsack will clampdown on unauthorized releases of GE crops into food, animal feed, or the environment beyond farm fields have occurred, and it is likely that such incidents will occur again. While there is no evidence that the six known releases into the food or feed supply or into crops meant for the food or feed supply affected human or animal health, some resulted in lost trade opportunities, according to the GAO.

Moreover, the total number of unauthorized releases into the environment is unknown. USDA and EPA have the authority to inspect fields in which GE crops are tested, but crop developers have detected most violations. USDA and EPA have taken enforcement actions in response to violations, ranging from warning letters to significant penalties. The agencies have used lessons learned from unauthorized releases to make regulatory and policy changes.

For example, USDA increased inspections of field trial sites for GE crops producing pharmaceutical compounds; EPA discontinued a policy under which a GE crop containing a pesticidal agent could be approved for animal feed, but not for food; and FDA established a voluntary early food safety evaluation program for certain GE crops intended for food use to help mitigate the impact should unauthorized releases occur during field trials, although it has not made these evaluations available to the public. USDA, EPA, and FDA routinely coordinate their oversight and regulation of GE crops in many respects, but could improve their efforts.

"USDA, EPA, and FDA have proposed regulatory changes intended to improve their oversight of GE crops. But with Vilsack at the helm the USDA will not be expected to push these necessary changes," claims biochemist Dr. Diane Goldstein of NYU.

"Furthermore, the 2008 Farm Bill required USDA to take actions on lessons learned from its investigation of an unauthorized release of GE rice. EPA has proposed several changes to its regulations for GE crops that produce pesticides, including one change that would distinguish between pesticidal agents produced in GE crops and those applied topically to crops. It remains to be seen if the Obama Administration — especially Vilsack — will follow through on such preventive actions," said Dr. Goldstein.

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