On Friday, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture held a budget hearing and heard testimony from USDA Inspector General Phyllis Fong.
Photo by the House Appropriations Committee
During the hearing, Subcommittee Chairman Robert Aderholt (R., Ala.), Subcommittee ranking member Sam Farr (D., Calif.) and Rep. Chellie Pingree (D., Maine) all referenced a recent New York Times article that focused on animal production research procedures and operations at a federal facility in Nebraska. The lawmakers expressed support for the IG to investigate some of the issues raised in the Times article in more detail.
Chairman Aderholt: In closing, I do want to thank you for agreeing to review the New York Times allegation about the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Nebraska. The article described research and attitudes that seem to be pretty much in…pretty inconsistent with the conscientious, the hardworking scientists and the staff that work there and that we have at the Agricultural Research Service. Your assistance in auditing the claims included in the article and reviewing the current conditions, practices and policies would be very helpful to us.
Ranking Member Farr: And I want to echo what the chairman said on the animal treatment center, and I’m sure it’s going to open up a lot of issues with a lot of university research areas, but it’s worth looking into. I know California has required all the research institutions in the state universities to change all their caging and animal husbandry practices to bring in humane practices, state-of-the-art humane practices. It’s very expensive to bring it all up, but they did it, and I think that’s probably something that we in Congress ought to look at.
Rep. Pingree: I want to just add my voice to the choruses of concern around a very troubling New York Times story that was mentioned about animal research, so I’m hopeful that we’re going to do some more investigating into that. And obviously many of the concerns that were raised in that story about the spending of taxpayer dollars and humane treatment basically bordering on the bizarre, in fact in some of the things that were being researched, in my opinion, and even more importantly, completely counter to what the consumer is looking for today. I mean, the market is growing in humanely raised and, you know, different levels of treatment for animals, so why the taxpayer dollars is being spent in something that’s clearly inappropriate practice I think raises a lot of questions. So just want to add my concerns along with the chair and the ranking member.
Also at the hearing on Friday, Rep. Sanford Bishop (D., Ga.) raised the issue of payment error rates with IG Fong and some of her staff; a portion of this discussion is detailed below.
Rep. Bishop: Can you tell us what the current level of OIG resources are that are dedicated to the FSA and what’s planned for 2016, if any investigations of fraud-related activity have been conducted with respect to FSA programs over the past couple of years?
I’m a very strong supporter of our FSA programs, as I am for SNAP and WIC, but I think all of us agree that fraud should be routed out no matter where it is, and I believe that we need to be concerned with the level of attention which has been reaped on SNAP versus the other programs such as risk management, the conservation programs.
So I’d really like to…can you tell me what the fraud rate, the error rate is? I know that SNAP and WIC are large programs, but what is the percentage error rate there compared to the other programs?
Ms. Fong: Okay.
Rep. Bishop: Because I think I was under the understanding that really that percentage of the total claims was small compared to some of the other programs that don’t get as much attention.
Ms. Fong: Let me just offer a few comments and then I’ll ask Gil and Ann. We also share your view that we need to address fraud wherever it occurs in USDA’s portfolio, and we are paying attention to allegations and issues in the farm programs and crop insurance programs, and I know we have some good examples of that.
In terms of the improper payment rates, you do have—I think you’re correct that in terms of what the department reports as improper payment rates in the food stamp program, it tends to be in the 3-4% range. In some of the other programs, say the RMA and NRCS programs, the improper payment rate is much higher, in the teens, maybe near 20%. There are probably a number of reasons for that. We are paying very close attention to that. And let me just offer the chance to comment to Gil and Ann.
Gil Harden, Assistant Inspector General for Audits: The thing that I would add to that, too, I mean, we are mindful of it, but the FSA percentages for their high risk programs for FSA are lower, some of the lower percentages. But we do keep them on the radar screen.
Ann Coffey, Acting Assistant Inspector General, Investigations: And I’d like to just address the question you had raised about what sorts of resources we’re allocating towards FSA investigative work. Historically, we have focused quite a bit of our resources on the SNAP program, but FSA is an area that we are definitely looking for an increase and expecting to increase our investigative work in those areas. We have had some very good cases within the last recent year with high dollar amounts, and so we do anticipate that within FY16 we will be increasing our work in FSA.
Meanwhile, Rep. David Young (R., Iowa) brought up antibiotic issues and livestock production during his conversation with IG Fong. A replay and transcript of this exchange is included below.
Rep. Young: Thank you for coming today. You know, I was at the beef expo in Iowa over the weekend, and we eat a lot of pork and produce a lot of pork as well in Iowa, as you know. And I understand in your budget you’ve ask for $57 million for an antibiotic resistance study on livestock, and it’s a new USDA initiative, [something] maybe you’ve studied a little bit in the past, but you’ve got to go forward, I think, and do something broader. And this causes farmers and ranchers in my state and other states, probably, some uncertainty and some cause for pause right there.
And just want to make sure that…the concerns are that sometimes this is viewed by ranchers and producers in a political science context and not sound science, and there may be outside pressures. I reflect back to the GMO debate. I just want to know, can you provide an overview of your work so far on any of this and where you want to go on this? And also, how do you involve the agriculture community, from the producers, the farmers, to veterinarians, and will you be keeping us up-to-date on this, and how will you do that?
Ms. Fong: I believe we have an ongoing audit on that. We started it last summer. We are probably in the middle of field work at this point. And I’m going to ask Gil to comment on specifically what our scope is on that.
Mr. Harden: I can kind of speak to our [unintelligible] scope. We’re basically looking at how the department is going about, you know, responding to the antibiotic resistance, you know, how they’re going about surveillance, you know, what they’re doing to match it with the science and stuff. It’s that line of questioning. But we are in the middle of field work. And I’d be more than happy to brief you further once we’re further along in the process.
Rep. Young: I’d appreciate that. Thank you.