U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is barnstorming for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
On Tuesday, Vilsack was joined by Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, in a news conference at Fresno Yosemite International Airport before heading to the Pacific Northwest.
Vilsack talked briefly about the drought and praised Foster Farms for spending $125 million to improve food safety. But the international trade agreement, which awaits a vote in Congress, had his attention.
On balance this is a good agreement for all parties, for the U.S. economy and for California agriculture.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack
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“This is an enormous opportunity for American agriculture,” Vilsack said.
The agreement would significantly reduce tariffs and taxes on U.S. products, allowing for increased exports. As one of the nation’s leading agriculture exporters, California stands to greatly benefit. Statewide, agriculture exports represent $20 billion in value and support 152,400 jobs.
It involves 12 countries across the Asia-Pacific region that represent about 40 percent of the global economy and nearly 500 million consumers.
“On balance this is a good agreement for all parties, for the U.S. economy and for California agriculture,” Vilsack said.
Critics of the trade agreement including labor groups and environmentalists say it could open the door to U.S. companies moving more jobs overseas. They also are concerned about protections for foreign workers.
“We are very concerned with the less than adequate labor and environmental protections,” said Randy Ghan, secretary-treasurer of the Fresno-Madera-Tulare-Kings Central Labor Council. “Some of these countries don’t have the labor standards or protections we have in the U.S.”
Vilsack disagreed, saying the agreement has protections for workers and the environment.
“We are raising the standards on labor and the environment, a first in the history of trade agreements,” Vilsack said. “And this is an agreement that is enforceable with trade sanctions. We have a heavy hammer to increase the standards.”
The agriculture secretary also pledged his continued support to farmers affected by the drought. Vilsack said that with Costa’s urging, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has provided funding for the installation of water-saving irrigation systems, emergency water supplies for rural communities and research.
“All told more than $100 million has been directed by the department for specific initiatives to California,” Vilsack said. “The support and help will continue as long as we are dealing with the drought.”
Before arriving in Fresno, Vilsack visited with farmers in the northern San Joaquin Valley and toured the Foster Farms plant in Livingston, where officials showed him the improvements they have made to food safety. The company was hit with an outbreak of salmonella two years ago that sickened more than 600 people in 29 states.
Vilsack praised the poultry company for investing $125 million in improving food safety and sharing its research with others in the industry.
“What I was most impressed with was the fact that they are now sharing information about lower salmonella levels with not just their own internal communications, but have seen fit to actually share that information with others, including competitors, which I think is a reflection of how we ought to be focusing on food safety,” Vilsack said. “We all have to be focused on food safety.”