Northey Asks Vilsack to Help Struggling Pork Producers

Iowa and Minnesota ag officials want USDA chief Tom Vilsack to use existing federal funds to purchase more pork for federal food programs.

Calling the plight of pork producers a financial crisis, Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Gene Hugoson and Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey sent a joint letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack last week urging Vilsack to use existing federal funds to purchase $50 million of pork products for use in federal food programs.

"Pork producers in Minnesota, Iowa and around the country are in a financial crisis," the two agriculture leaders wrote in their letter. "Directing federal funds already allocated to USDA to purchase pork products would give our producers a much-needed boost at a time of great need."

In the letter, Hugoson and Northey recommended that Secretary Vilsack use USDA Section 32 funds to purchase the pork products, which would be used in federal emergency food programs, food pantries, senior/elderly food programs, and other noncommercial food channels. This action would benefit pork producers by reducing the excess supply of pork in the marketplace, while also providing a healthy protein source to the many Americans in need who are served by these food assistance programs. 

Hog producers continue to lose money

Weakened export demand, high input prices, and market disruptions associated with the H1N1 influenza outbreak have combined to create the most difficult operating environment for pork producers in many years. According to the National Pork Producers Council, 2008 was among the worst financial years ever for pork producers.

The financial losses accelerated in April 2009 as the H1N1 influenza emerged - which unfortunately was reported as "swine flu" in news reports. The American Farm Bureau Federation reported that pork producers' per-head losses doubled after the flu outbreak hit the news, produced a scare in the marketplace and adversely affected demand for pork and thus further lowered hog prices.

NPPC estimated that pork producers around the country lost nearly $7.2 million each day between April 24 and May 1. The Minnesota Pork Producers Association reports that the H1N1 outbreak has cost Minnesota pork producers more than $45 million to date.

Fears of H1N1 wrongly associated with pork

Hugoson and Northey pointed out in the letter to Secretary Vilsack that misplaced fears over food safety have contributed significantly to the problem. 

"In the early weeks of the H1N1 outbreak, the disease was mislabeled 'swine flu,' and while many news reporters have now switched to the more accurate label of H1N1 for this virus, some media outlets still use the earlier, less accurate label," they wrote.  "This incorrect association with pigs has created unfounded fears among domestic and international consumers about the safety of pork products, and prompted some protectionist-minded countries to overreact by closing their doors to U.S. meat and poultry."

There are 14 countries that are continuing to ban the import of U.S. pork and pork products, using fear of the H1N1 virus as the reason or excuse. A full copy of the letter to Vilsack is available on the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship's Web site at www.IowaAgriculture.gov.

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