Vilsack Talks West Coast Port Disputes with MN Ag Groups

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was in St. Paul for a Trade and Exports Roundtable with a select group of agriculture representatives. Among the topics discussed was Country of Origin Labeling (COOL), the West Coast port dispute and trade agreements.

Attending on behalf of Minnesota Soybean was Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council Vice Chairman Keith Schrader. While some of the topics discussed touched on political issues, Schrader attended on behalf of the MSR&PC to see if there were ways the Council could help mitigate problems.

Vilsack was pressed about a number of issues, including the West Coast port dispute, which according to Mike Steenhoek, Executive Director of Soy Transportation Coalition, has cost U.S. exporters of agricultural products $1.75 billion each month.

“What he said was, ‘believe me, that’s one issue I’ve been working on every single day.’”

Schrader said one of the groups in attendance was Hormel, which has been severely impacted because its customers prefer chilled meats. Currently, Hormel has chilled pork sitting in the Los Angeles ports that can’t get moved. He said Hormel is considering moving all their shipments through Houston and that this has opened the door for other companies to start sending products away from the West Coast.

The American Meat Institute and the National Pork Producers Council contend that the West Coast delays are costing each industry $40 million per week.

Vilsack told attendees he is keeping on top of the dispute. He said that President Obama ordered U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez Friday morning to fly to the West Coast to deal directly with both sides of the labor dispute.

“This is the strongest stance Obama has taken on the West Coast labor dispute,” Schrader said.

Perez will meet with the International Longshoremen & Warehouse Union (ILWU) and Pacific Maritime Association (PMA). Schrader said the ongoing dispute not only has an economic impact, but contributes negatively to trade confidence with foreign customers.

“I’ve got over half my soybeans that are food grade beans, and they haven’t called to process them yet because they can’t get them shipped,” he said. “You got soybean meal, food grade soybeans and DDGs that can’t go out of a container, so it’s serious and it’s being felt in Minnesota.”

Vilsack touched on COOL, saying there needs to be one set of rules so the food industry doesn’t have to work so hard to label a product to fit multiple sets of rules. One suggestion he provided was creating a bar code that would allow consumers to scan the code and see whether a product is genetically modified or not, and where the product was produced.

One message Vilsack left the commodity groups in attendance with was to contact the people who represent them. He said town hall meetings, personal messages, and personal visits resonate best with individuals. He said visits from ag groups are important, but nothing beats an in-person visit or a personal message.