USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack addressed an array of agriculture's hot topics in a House Agriculture Committee hearing Wednesday, ultimately returning to a few issues, including trade policy.
Vilsack was the sole witness in the hearing, an effort to review the state of the ag economy.
On trade, he pressed approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an Asia-Pacific trade agreement still in the negotiation stage. He said the deal would circumvent smaller trade deals that likely won't be subject to as much scrutiny.
"This Trans Pacific Partnership is a big deal," Vilsack said, stressing that it presents an opportunity for high-value American products to fill a void.
Negotiators have suggested that the agreement is in the final stages of completion after a demanding process that included scrutiny of tariffs on agricultural goods. In 2013 and into last year, many ag groups were concerned with Japan's demands for tariff exemption on several "protected" ag goods.
Attention has turned to the renewal of Trade Promotion Authority, which would allow Congress an up-or-down vote on TPP. Groups say TPA will provide certainty to trading partners that elements of the agreement won't be changed while moving through the approval process.
Vilsack and President Obama both have issued statements of support regarding the TPA, though some members of Congress say the TPA may approve some portions of the agreement that could have negative impacts on the middle class.
In supporting the TPP Wednesday, Vilsack said individual side deals in lieu of the larger agreement may lead large producers like China to "fill a void" and create all-Asia trade agreements.
On the topic of China, Vilsack said the country is planning to meet with the U.S. this spring to discuss biotech approvals, regulatory processes and subsidies.
The U.S. will be submitting an agenda for the meeting for Chinese approval soon, he said, also addressing the U.S. Trade Representative's recent challenge on China's export subsidy program.
"It's fairly clear that they have been not necessarily playing by the rules in a number of areas," Vilsack said in response to a question on cotton stores. He later suggested negotiations with the country will require tact.
"They are our No. 1 customer, so we obviously need to be sensitive to that. But at the same time we want a science-based and rules-based system because if everyone plays fair, we'll do just fine in that system. If we're at a disadvantage, obviously that's a problem.
"I think we're calling them out, and we should," he said.
Legislators also questioned the top ag official on Country-of-Origin Labeling, a U.S. policy that has been contested by trading partners Canada and Mexico.
The policy, which mandates certain meat products in the U.S. carry labels indicating where the originating animal was born, raised and slaughtered, violates technical barriers to trade, the countries say.
It was called into question with the World Trade Organization in 2012, and after a revision in 2013 the WTO again last year said COOL doesn't comply with WTO regulations.
The U.S. has appealed the decision, and Vilsack said he expected an answer on that issue to come this spring.
"If we are successful in that appeal, we have looked at this from a regulatory perspective and we have concluded … that we cannot, at the agency and department level, navigate the difficult path between what Congress has mandated and what the WTO says is acceptable.
"Congress is either going to have to rescind the rule or modify the rule," Vilsack added. That could include mandating a more generic label that would enable implementation without segregation of livestock, he said.
He stressed that a detailed science-based risk assessment has been completed on the regions in question and there would also be checks at the border.
"If we're asking the Chinese to play by a certain set of rules we obviously have to play by those rules as well," he said of the assessment process.
"If we don't [consider these beef imports] then it's very difficult for me to go to China and say, 'you need a rules-based and science-based system for GMOs' or to Europe and say 'hormone beef ought to be allowed to be traded because the science says it's OK.' So it's about consistency."