U.S. Department of Agriculture

Photo Credit: Madison Richards | Daily Texan Staff

Kathleen Merrigan, Former USDA Agriculture Deputy Secretary, said at a lecture on campus Wednesday that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program was one of the most successful products of the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the Obama administration.

During the lecture, hosted by the LBJ School of Public Affairs, Merrigan — who worked for the USDA from 2009 to 2013 as the deputy secretary and the chief operating officer — said the Obama administration has done an “above-average” job to avoid improper payments. 

“An improper payment can be giving more money than someone deserves, or less money than someone deserves — that’s the definition of improper payments in government,” Merrigan said. “They are doing really, really great, and, at the same time, doing better outreach in the program.”

The SNAP program, formerly known as food stamps, serves approximately 47 million people in the United States, according to the Washington Post. Merrigan said the federal government aims to have less than a 4 percent error rate when avoiding improper payments. She said the SNAP program currently has an error rate of 3.8 percent.

Although Merrigan praised the way the USDA executed the SNAP program, she listed what she believed to be failures by the department. Among these was ensuring that there was an adequate amount of competition in the agricultural market.

Rajeev Patel, who is a research professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, also spoke at the lecture. He said he believes it is important to remember the circumstances in which the Obama administration was formed in context to the country’s approach to food topics. He said the department’s relationship with the private sector is something that should be taken into account when discussing the administration’s approach.

“Often, it’s forgotten that while the beneficiaries of SNAP are invariably poor people in the United States … it’s also important to remember that one of the largest beneficiaries of SNAP is Walmart,” Patel said. “18 percent of the $80 billion spent on SNAP is spent at Walmart.”

Public affairs graduate student Cristian Villalobos, who attended the lecture, said he believes the USDA should focus on educating parents on proper nutrition for children in the first 1,000 days of life. According to Villalobos, SNAP has been one of the more crucial programs since the recession in 2009.

“On a public perception level, it seems to have less of a stigma than other forms of welfare,” Villalobos said. “SNAP seems to be less politicized and conflated as a burden to the government.”

Merrigan said she believes there was an effort underway nationally to vilify the traditional SNAP beneficiary, driven by Republican budget cutting purposes.

“We were really trying to protect the image of the SNAP recipient and to maintain their dignity,” Merrigan said. “There was a notion that poor people can’t take care of themselves, and we tried to push back.”

Lindsay Allen, director of the Department of Nutrition at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, gives a talk on the importance of micronutrients in diet Friday afternoon. 

Photo Credit: Shweta Gulati | Daily Texan Staff

Although efforts to decrease malnutrition for women and children in developing countries, as well as in the U.S., have shown improvement in recent years, researchers still need to develop better solutions, according to Lindsay Allen, director of the Department of Nutrition at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In a lecture Friday, Allen said a deficiency of specific micronutrients, such as iron or folic acid, can have devastating effects on children and their mothers, especially during the prenatal period.

“If mothers don’t get the right nutritional care during pregnancy, it can lead to low birth weight, delayed growth and higher mortality for the child,” Allen said.

Allen said providing women and children with supplements containing micronutrients can sometimes alleviate these problems but said more research needs to be done.

“Micronutrient interventions have a significant positive impact on morbidity, mortality, and health of women and children, but information gaps still remain,” Allen said. “Miracle foods,” such as rice genetically enhanced with Vitamin A or LNS, a peanut-based spread packed with micronutrients, have long been touted by researchers as cures for malnutrition in developing countries, according to Allen. She said these products can provide short-term benefits but still don’t solve underlying nutrient deficits.

“When we look at the data, we see that [these interventions] have only a tiny effect on growth,” Allen said.

Nutrition professor Michele Forman said more research is needed to determine precise values for micronutrient needs, especially in children.

“Dietary reference intakes for kids are a mess,” Forman said. “The guidelines for how many nutrients we need per day are out there, but they’re based on crude approximations.”

According to Allen, vegetarian diets also don’t provide an adequate amount of micronutrients. To meet dietary needs, Allen suggested kids and parents should eat more animal- source products.

“Eating foods like meat, milk and eggs will increase size, birth weight and school performance [for kids],” Allen said.

LUBBOCK — The smallest cattle herd since the 1950s likely will mean higher beef prices at the supermarket for the next two years.

Experts said beef prices could climb as much as 10 percent a year in 2012 and 2013, and the increase could be even greater if demand from other countries increases.

Those higher prices would follow steady increases that have seen the average retail cost of a pound of hamburger rise 23 percent, from $2.38 in December 2010 to $2.92 last December, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Last month the USDA reported the U.S. herd had declined to 90.8 million cattle, 2 percent less than the previous year and the lowest inventory since 1952, when there were 88.1 million.

“We’re producing less beef so prices are going to go up,” Texas AgriLife Extension Service livestock economist David Anderson said.

Ranchers have sold more of their cattle in recent years to meet increased costs for feed, fuel and other expenses. The soaring feed costs come amid heightened demand for corn to produce ethanol and to meet a growing export market.

The situation has been worst in Texas, the nation’s leading cattle producer, and other parts of the southern plains and southwest, where a record drought caused pastures to wither, leaving ranchers with few options but to sell their cattle or pay top-dollar for feed.

There are 1.4 million fewer cattle — a record 660,000 of those cows — in Texas this year compared with the previous year, accounting for about 74 percent of the drop in numbers nationally. The animals were either moved to another state or were slaughtered.

HOUSTON — The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Monday pledged $50 million to a program designed to restore seven river basins from Florida to Texas in an attempt to show a blueprint for rebuilding the Gulf Coast’s fragile ecosystem is more than just another federal report.

The USDA’s announcement accompanied the presentation of the final report of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, a team established by President Barack Obama after the April 2010 oil spill that highlighted decades of environmental decline in the Gulf of Mexico.

The task force’s plan for reviving the Gulf and the ecosystems and watersheds linked to it calls for rebuilding and conserving wetlands; cleaning polluted rivers and streams; strengthening communities along the storm-prone area and better preparing them for the storms that brew over the warm ocean waters; and allowing more sediment to naturally flow downstream to slowly rebuild barrier islands meant to provide natural protection from storms.

“We are all dedicated to making sure that the treasures we grew up with are still around for future generations,” said U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, a New Orleans native who chaired the task force.

Jackson and officials from other federal and state agencies made the announcements in Houston at a summit sponsored by the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies. The summit focuses on the Gulf, its importance to the U.S. economy and the need to reverse decades of damage and neglect.

Jackson said the USDA project — an offshoot of an existing national program aimed at conserving, improving and preserving the nation’s watersheds — is only the first of many initiatives she expects will be announced in the coming months.

“I expect a flurry of activity to get some meat on those bones,” she said.

The Gulf of Mexico, long neglected and under-funded, is a vital part of the nation’s economy. More than 90 percent of the nation’s offshore oil and natural gas production originates in the Gulf and 13 of the top 20 ports by tonnage are in the region. If the five coastal states were a country, it would rank seventh in global gross domestic product. In 2009, the Gulf Coast produced 30 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.

While this committee has been assigned the task of identifying problems and pinpointing possible solutions, Congress has been considering a bill called the Restore Act that would allow most of the penalties BP would pay for fouling the waters to go back toward restoring the environment in the five Gulf states: Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida and Texas. The House is to hold hearings on the proposed bill later this week.

The first project administered by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service gives farmers and ranchers the finances they need to change their land or water use practices to help clean, conserve and preserve the watersheds, said Harris Sherman, the USDA’s undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment.

The USDA provides them with a “tool kit” of options for joining the program, he added.

The program — called the Gulf of Mexico Initiative — also requires matching funds from state, local and nonprofit entities, and so the funds available could total some $90 million, Sherman said. Similar projects are already under way elsewhere, and have successfully reversed some damage done to waterways.

The $50 million commitment to the Gulf Coast, however, is unique because it significantly increases the department’s funding to the region. Already, Sherman said, officials have met with ranchers and farmers in the area and are confident they will participate. The funding will be made available over the next three years, with the first $20 million available immediately.

The seven river basins identified for immediate assistance are already on the federal Clean Water Act’s list of polluted waterways. In Alabama, the program’s goal in the Weeks Bay watershed is to reduce agricultural-related nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment running downstream and to preserve wildlife habitats.

In a watershed shared by Alabama and Florida, the program aims to reduce the sediments and nutrients that flow into tributaries of the Escambia River. The USDA believes this will ultimately “improve wildlife habitat and the quality of water delivered to Pensacola Bay” and the Gulf.

The project has similar goals for another Florida watershed.

In Louisiana, it will focus on the Baratoria-Terrebonne estuary and the Mermentau basin, once again by reducing the harm fertilizers have as they flow downstream from rivers and streams into the Gulf of Mexico. In Mississippi the Jourdan River basin is the focus, while in Texas the goal is to clean up the Guadalupe River basin.

Officials believe the project will improve water quality for thousands of residents in Pensacola, Fla., Mobile, Ala., and San Antonio.

“We’re focusing on priority areas where we can get the greatest gains,” Sherman said.

Poultry distributor Cargill Inc. recalled 185,000 pounds of ground turkey products on Sunday after traces of salmonella were found in them. These products included chubs of Honeysuckle White Ground Turkey and Kroger ground turkey products.

The traces of salmonella were found during a recall review of Cargill’s processing facility, conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Products from the company are sold at many grocery stores nationwide, and several of the recalled products are sold at H-E-B, which has stopped sales of certain ground turkey products due to the recall.

“A lot of people buy these products,” said Dan Pisnerous, market manager of the meat department at Austin’s H-E-B location on East 41st Street. “As far as I know, nobody’s gotten sick.”

Cargill released a news statement to the press yesterday discussing the recalls and courses of action being taken.

“There are no known illnesses associated with this positive sample,” said Cargill president Steve Willardsen in the statement. “[However] it is the same Salmonella Heidelberg strain that resulted in our voluntary recall on Aug. 3.”

The initial recall in August involved traces of Salmonella Heidelberg, a specific strain that is resistant to many common antibiotics. According to the Center for Disease Control, between March 1 and Aug. 1 of this year, 77 people were infected with the strain, nine of those cases occurring in Texas. Ground turkey was linked to the illnesses since 49 percent of those infected mentioned eating it before noticing symptoms of poisoning.

Production of ground turkey products is suspended at the company’s Springdale, Ark. processing facility until the USDA approves corrective actions.

Springdale’s other turkey products are not being recalled, nor are products from other Cargill facilities in the U.S.

UT’s dining facilities on campus were not impacted by the recalls.

“We do not use Cargill turkey,” said Scott Meyer, associate director of food services. “So we’re not involved.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offer several suggestions to poultry consumers for staying healthy, including hand washing, cooking poultry thoroughly and sending back undercooked meat at restaurants. Other tips include avoiding cross-contamination of foods and refrigerating raw and cooked poultry within two hours after purchase and after cooking.

Cargill’s news statement emphasized the importance of reducing human health risks and the company’s continuing efforts to make their products as safe as possible.

Cargill is not sure how long it will take for production of the ground turkey products to resume, said spokesman Mike Martin.

“We’re still assessing what it is we need to do to add additional measure to the facility,” Martin said. “We haven’t finalized that yet. It’s yet to be determined.”

Printed on September 13, 2011 as: Turkey recalled after salmonella scare