Beef producers lash out at USDA's choice of Humane Society vet for advisory panel

On July 21, when Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the 19 members of the USDA Advisory Committee on Animal Health, a quick look at the names didn't seem like the list would raise any red flags. But now some agricultural groups are speaking out against one of Vilsack's picks: Michael J. Blackwell, a veterinarian and director of veterinary policy for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).

What's the problem? Turns out HSUS has made some enemies among food-animal producers, stemming from the group's active role in promoting legislation meant to improve the welfare of animals used in agriculture. An August 18 post by Agri-Pulse notes that HSUS pushed for the creation of the California egg law, which requires producers to expand the space in cages for egg-laying chickens. It is one of the laws perceived by some in the agricultural industry as harmful because of the added expenses required to comply.

Paul Shapiro, HSUS's vice president of farm animal protection, told Agri-Pulse that "while there were some in the agribusiness industry who opposed the [California egg] ballot measure, two-thirds of California voters favored it."

Maybe so, but Blackwell's appointment continues to irritate some in the agriculture community. "Vilsack took a misstep when he added Michael Blackwell" to the committee, wrote a blogger for Beef Daily recently.

Blackwell was a practicing veterinarian before leaving to work at the FDA, where he served for 20 years in both the human and veterinary divisions. He then served as the chief veterinarian of the United States Public Health Service, and then dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Tennessee. He joined HSUS in December 2013.

Blackwell joins a diverse group of USDA animal-health advisers whose expertise ranges from livestock care to food safety. "The committee will provide outside perspectives on USDA strategies, policies, and programs to prevent, control and/or eradicate animal health diseases," reads a statement from the agency. "The Committee will also lead broader dialogue on public health concerns and the stability of the livestock economies."

No doubt the committee will have its hands full, as the USDA grapples with an expanding menu of challenges. They include controlling the recent avian flu outbreak, contending with new practices meant to limit the use of antibiotics in farm animals and implementing new rules to help veterinarians respond more quickly to emerging pathogens.

- access the full list of UDSA Animal Health Committee members here
- here's the Agri-Pulse story
- get Beef Daily's take