Led by Secretary Tom Vilsack, this year the U.S. Department of Agriculture implemented several initiatives that supported local foods and promoted consumer education.
In February the agency launched the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Compass, an interactive website intended to support the KYF initiative that was launched in 2009 to promote local food systems. The website, www.usda.gov/KYFcompass, includes features such as an informational video, blog, case studies, map that highlights USDA projects and data related to local and regional food systems.
“Local and regional food systems are about opportunity. The opportunity for our country’s farmers, ranchers and growers to meet growing customer demand and to expand access to healthy foods. Opportunities for entrepreneurs to start small businesses such as food processors, distributors, food hubs and markets,” Vilsack wrote in the Huffington Post when the compass was unveiled.
The agency has given funding to states to work on wireless technology at farmers’ markets so that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program participants will be better able to buy local produce, and has continued to develop SNAP fraud prevention programs.
The agency has also been implementing initiatives to give consumers more information at the retail level.
After USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service moved its deadline from Jan. 1, 2012, to March 1, FSIS implemented its meat labeling program, mandating that 40 of the most popular items in the meat case display nutrition information on labels.
Meat departments now display these meats with a nutrition panel itemizing calories, total fat and saturated fat.
Under Vilsack’s watch, USDA helped prevent panic after the agency confirmed that a dairy cow in central California had a case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy or “mad cow” disease in April. Using social media and its website, the agency quickly distributed information about safeguards and measures taken to prevent sick cows from entering the food supply.
On the food safety side, FSIS this year announced it will be testing for six new strains of E. coli in raw beef trimmings, and that it will be implementing a more rigorous system for testing for harmful levels of chemicals in meat, such as antibiotics, pesticides and metals.
Next year, the agency will likely be working on implementation of the 2012 Farm Bill, as the 2008 Farm Bill — which determines agricultural and food policy and includes the bulk of SNAP funding — is set to expire Sept. 30.
In October last year, Vilsack noted that the USDA prioritized doing more with less funding in the 2012 bill, and advocated for conservation, insurance for farmers, funding for research and preservation of SNAP as a “safety net” for families.
“So we’ve got to continue to impress upon Americans the importance of this program [SNAP], but we also have the responsibility to strengthen it,” he said, noting the efforts USDA has made to eliminate waste and cut down fraud.
Last month, the Senate passed its version of the 2012 Farm Bill. The Senate’s version repealed direct payments to farmers and extended SNAP — but with $4.5 billion in cuts.
The House had not yet voted on the bill at the time of publication but released a draft of its bill that proposed cutting $16 billion in SNAP funding.