July 15, 2010


 House ag chair on animal ID, livestock welfare

Rep. Peterson says veterinarians are 'critical resources'
in legislative process

 Interview by R. Scott Nolen

Posted July 1, 2010

For the past decade, Collin Peterson has represented Minnesota's 7th Congressional District. Though only one of 435 members of the House of Representatives, Peterson is important to veterinary medicine because he chairs the powerful House Agriculture Committee, through which legislation pertaining to the nation's livestock and food safety systems must pass. 

Peterson recently took time to answer questions for JAVMA News about the Veterinary Services Investment Act, livestock identification and welfare, the Farm Bill, and efforts to curb the use of antimicrobials in animal agriculture. 

Rep. Collin Peterson 

What was your reaction to the Department of Agriculture's scrapping of the National Animal Identification System in favor of a state-run system? Do you think a nationwide mechanism for tracking the movements of livestock is necessary? Will there be adequate funding for a new identification system in the 2011 budget?

If our primary concern is the ability to trace animals quickly in the event of a serious disease outbreak, then a mandatory national identification system is the only option that makes sense. The inability of APHIS (the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) to implement such a system, despite the appropriation of $142 million in federal funding since FY04, has been both disappointing and frustrating. I also recognize that the receptiveness to such a system across the various segments of animal agriculture has been mixed. Without broad cooperation, there is no way that we can develop an identification system that will work as well as we need it to.

The president's FY11 budget has requested about $14 million for the animal identification program. I do not know how the appropriators will respond to that request. At this point, I think we need to see how the state-focused approach will play out, but the clock is always ticking. In the face of a disease outbreak, whether the disease is endemic in this country or foreign, an animal identification system that allows us to quickly track animal movement is critical to ensuring an effective animal disease surveillance system.

The Veterinarian Services Investment Act (H.R. 3519) is in your committee. How do you see this legislation bolstering access to needed services across the country, and do you plan for your committee to vote on its passage during the current session?

I agree with the goals of the Veterinarian Services Investment Act, namely, finding ways to help the veterinary profession recruit, train, and retain practicing large animal veterinarians, especially in underserved rural areas. The language may need to be clarified and focused to accomplish these goals, and I want to work with the AVMA to identify the best way to address this important issue.

Legislation affecting veterinary medicine often comes before your committee for consideration. How important is input from veterinarians in helping decide these issues?

The House Agriculture Committee has a good and long-standing working relationship with the AVMA. This is no accident. We recognize veterinarians are essential experts and critical resources in the areas of animal health and disease. We look forward to continuing this collaboration when addressing issues related to animal health and veterinary medicine.

Two bills in the House—H.R. 2400 and H.R. 1549—address the issue of antimicrobial use in animal agriculture. H.R. 1549 in particular proposes to curb the use of antimicrobial drugs in livestock production to preserve the drugs' effectiveness in human medicine. Will Congress eventually impose new limits on antimicrobial use in animal agriculture, and would that be good?

Antibiotic resistance is a serious concern for both human health and animal health, and we need to keep in mind that animal health is also important to human health. The key is ensuring judicious use of antibiotics for both humans and animals. The expertise and experience of veterinarians in treating animal disease is critical in this effort. I also believe more studies are needed on the use of antibiotics in human medicine and the role it plays in antibiotic resistance, which is why Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Frank Lucas and I have requested a Government Accountability Office study on the use and misuse of antibiotics in human medicine. We need to approach this issue very carefully, using sound science that fully addresses all the risks and benefits involved and with full consideration of the consequences of our choices.

Any thoughts on the USDA finally getting the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program up and running after almost seven years since Congress approved it?

There has been a lot of frustration on the Hill and in the veterinary profession regarding the pace at which this program was implemented. Nevertheless, it is encouraging that the program appears to finally be rolling out. The Agriculture Committee will be watching closely to see how the program progresses and will be conducting the necessary oversight on its implementation.

USDA research funding is disproportionately skewed in favor of plant research. Will you examine how the USDA research portfolio can be rebalanced so that animal disease research and other animal research receive additional resources?

During the last Farm Bill, we reorganized research activities at USDA. I think the new structure and organization will enhance USDA's ability to recognize emerging issues and will allow us to identify gaps in research that need to be addressed. During our Farm Bill hearings, I hope we will hear how well the reorganization is working so we can make any needed adjustments in the next Farm Bill.

The Veterinarian Services Investment Act is a key bill supported by the AVMA
and under consideration in the House Agriculture Committee chaired by
Rep. Collin Peterson.

Horse slaughter and what to do with the nation's unwanted horses continue to be emotionally charged issues. Should Congress get involved, or should the states and courts decide the matter?

The Agriculture Committee has been actively engaged and has held hearings on this issue. The fate of the unwanted horse is a serious concern. Since the implementation of provisions that effectively prohibit equine slaughter, there is evidence across the country that the problem of unwanted horses has become worse. Those opposed to horse slaughter have not stepped forward with effective solutions, and equine rescue facilities and sanctuaries are full beyond capacity. There does not appear to be enough support in Congress right now to effectively resolve the problem, but many of us on the Agriculture Committee will continue to encourage our colleagues to recognize the severity of the situation and provide pragmatic leadership on this issue.

Periodically, videos surface showing livestock being abused. A recent GAO report concluded that the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service was lax in its enforcement of humane slaughter standards.

Does FSIS have all the necessary resources to fulfill its mission and responsibilities? Are you concerned about the treatment of livestock at these facilities?

The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act provides standards for the humane slaughter of livestock, and we expect those standards to be followed in slaughter plants and enforced by FSIS. The problem of enforcing these standards appears to be largely one of consistency. We need to be sure that FSIS inspectors have the training, tools, support, and management structure they need to provide consistent enforcement of the HMSA. The committee will continue to monitor the performance of FSIS in this area.

You've begun holding hearings on the Farm Bill.

What overall goals do you hope to accomplish this time around?

Looking ahead to 2012, all parts of government are going to be asked to do more with less money. That is why I am starting the process of Farm Bill hearings early. We need to take a serious look at the money we are spending and ask if there is a better way to provide a safety net for American agriculture with the same amount of money or less than we are now spending.

It is important to keep in mind that the Farm Bill is about more than just farms. In addition to preserving the farm safety net, the 2008 Farm Bill made historic investments in nutrition, conservation, renewable energy, research, rural development, fruit and vegetable products, and organic agriculture. These will continue to be important priorities for the Agriculture Committee as we begin the process of writing the next Farm Bill.

As we did while writing and passing the 2008 Farm Bill, I am committed to ensuring that the 2012 Farm Bill process is as open and transparent as possible. We are providing live video webcasts from the Farm Bill field hearings we are holding across the country, and we are asking the public to provide feedback and thoughts on the Farm Bill on our website at www.agriculture.house.gov. Sometimes, the best ideas come from outside the Beltway, and I want to hear from the people who really use Farm Bill programs as we look at new ideas for the next version of this important legislation.