Former ag secretary Vilsack says Mexico needs reassurance
February 2, 2017
ORLANDO — Former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who this week became president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, told dairy industry leaders here today that they should call their Mexican customers and reassure them that they still want to do business with them. He also said that he left a 24-page memo for Sonny Perdue, President Donald Trump's nominee for Agriculture secretary, and that he has spoken with Perdue.
Asked by The Hagstrom Report if he would follow former President Barack Obama and comment on Trump's executive orders, Vilsack declined. But in his speech to the International Dairy Foods Association's Dairy Forum, he told his new colleagues, "It is important to recognize that we all have an opportunity and a responsibility to reassure those we work with in Mexico that we will continue to work with them."
Tom Vilsack, who was named president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council this week, speaks at the IDFA Dairy Forum in Orlando, Fla. (Jerry Hagstrom/The Hagstrom Report
Vilsack said he believed that those business relationships "can overcome" other comments coming from Washington — an obvious reference to Trump's statements on building a wall with Mexico, renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement, a tax on products coming in from Mexico and stricter immigration law enforcement.
Vilsack did tell The Hagstrom Report that "it's important for everyone to understand the impact that language can have on sensitive issues such as trade."
In an onstage interview with IDFA President and CEO Michael Dykes, Vilsack said he had left a 24-page memo for the incoming secretary and that he had a half-hour telephone conversation with Perdue last week in which they talked mostly about international trade.
IDFA is concerned about the relationship with Mexico because 39 percent of U.S. dairy exports go to Mexico. At a separate news conference, Dykes said that renegotiating NAFTA could provide the U.S. dairy industry an opportunity to bring up problems it has had with getting products into Canada, but that NAFTA created a substantial market opportunity in Mexico, and the industry is worried its Mexican exports could be endangered.
If the United States negotiates a free trade agreement with the United Kingdom, it will be important for negotiators to say there will be "no concessions" on the use of geographic indicators that the European Union pushed for in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or, if there are any GI provisions, that the system provides fairness to U.S. producers, Vilsack said.
"We have to be very vigilant on this" because the European Union has been "very aggressive" on the GI issue, Vilsack said.
Vilsack also said he told Perdue that he will need to make the case for agricultural trade because it often gets lost in trade negotiations. Of the 160 to 170 countries involved in trade negotiations, about 150 to 155 have agriculture as the No. 1 economic sector, but that is not true in the United States with its "layered" economy.
Vilsack said he also told Perdue that USDA's budget has been stable or gone down in recent years, and that the farm bill should start with analyzing needs, not a budget number.
On the issue of Trump's executive order that departments will be expected to eliminate two regulations for each new one that is promulgated, Vilsack said, "Rhetoric is going to meet the reality." He also noted that implementing the law on labeling genetically modified foods will require "a number of new rules and regulations."
Vilsack also told the dairy executives that the dairy industry has a harder time than the beef industry in making its voice heard in Washington, because there are a million cattle producers and only 43,000 dairy farmers.
The dairy industry, Vilsack said, needs to speak with one voice, and to "punch above our weight."
Asked by Dykes about his dairy food preferences, Vilsack said he definitely prefers chocolate milk to white milk.
Asked for his favorite flavor of ice cream, he said it was impossible to answer because he likes all ice cream. But he acknowledged that he likes chocolate and strawberry and vanilla "as long as you put something on the vanilla."
–The Hagstrom Report