Tester Presses Agriculture Secretary Vilsack on Farm Service Agency Staffing Issues, Brazilian Beef Ban

Senator pushes for better pay for FSA workers, Brazil beef ban

In his continued push to support Montana farmers and ranchers, U.S. Senator Jon Tester pressed U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack on staffing issues at the Farm Service Agency (FSA) and on suspending Brazilian beef imports to the United States.

Tester grilled Secretary Vilsack on staffing issues at FSA, and blamed uncompetitive pay for the number of vacancies at Montana’s FSA offices.   

One of the things that I didn’t expect to hear about, but I’ve heard about in every one of [my Farm Bill listening sessions] is that it’s really hard to hire people in our FSA offices,” said Tester. “We’ve got 236 FSA positions in Montana; roughly 40 of them are vacant on any given day. Part of the problem is competitive salaries… And you know very well, we can do the best job putting a Farm Bill up, you can do the best job implementing it, but if you don’t have people on the job, we’re screwed.”

Tester also pressed Vilsack on suspending Brazilian beef imports to the U.S. and addressing consolidation in the ag industry, citing that JBS – one of the four big packers controlling more than 80% of the beef industry – is based in Brazil. 

“Here’s the issue. I don’t think you would disagree with the fact that we raise the best beef in the world,” said Tester. “We raise the best ag products in the world and that’s not a brag – I believe that as absolute unequivocal fact. When we have a situation where we’re having generational ranchers go broke because of an issue that you and I agree on – the amount of consolidation in the industry and the processing industry – and one of those processors is JBS, which is a Brazilian company, I think we ought to do our level-best not only to hold them accountable and make sure they’re following the Packers and Stockyards Act, but hold them to extremely high standards when it comes to bringing in Brazilian beef.”

Brazil enjoys preferential market access on the global stage due to its designation as a “negligible risk” exporter by OIE. While rare, one-off instances of atypical BSE do not necessarily indicate systemic issues with the health of Brazilian cattle herds, repeated delays in reporting suggest an overly lax food safety regime and raise concerns about the reporting of additional dangerous diseases such as Foot-and-Mouth Disease, African Swine Fever, and Avian Influenza.

As the Senate’s only working farmer, Tester has led the charge to support Montana ranchers and increase competition for American family farms and ranches. In February, Tester introduced his bipartisan Cattle Price Discovery and Transparency Act to increase market transparency by establishing minimums for negotiated sales and requiring clear reporting of marketing contracts, and his Meatpacking Special Investigator Act to combat anticompetitive practices in the meat processing industry by appointing a USDA special investigator with subpoena power to enforce the nation’s anti-trust laws.

That same month, Tester introduced bipartisan legislation with Senators Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) and Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) to suspend Brazilian beef imports to the U.S. until experts can conduct a systemic review of the commodity’s impact on food safety and animal health. And in January, Tester introduced his bipartisan American Beef Labeling Act with Senator John Thune (R-S.D.) to reinstate mandatory country of original labeling (MCOOL) for beef.


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