The move is a boon for USDEC, but also could stoke complaints about the revolving door between government agencies and the industries they regulate as the USDA has substantial influence over the dairy market through various regulations and oversight of the dairy checkoff campaign, which is the primary funder for USDEC.
Vilsack’s move is not unusual in that other agency leaders in the past have left to lead industry, and there is no evidence that he gave the group preferential treatment while at USDA.
However, in the past year USDA under Vilsack offered several helping hands to the dairy industry.
In the early summer, Vilsack announced USDA would give $11.2 million in financial aid to American dairy producers enrolled in the 2016 Margin Protection Program of Dairy, which was the largest since the program began in 2014, according to USDA.
He also announced in mid-October that USDA would buy $20 million of cheddar cheese, on top of the 11 million pounds valued at $20 million it agreed to purchase in late August. This action came at the behest of dairy farmer organizations and surprised the International Dairy Foods Association, according to IDFA.
More generally, under Vilsack’s leadership, USDA protected dairy’s place as a major food group with daily serving recommendations and its inclusion in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children and other nutrition programs.
Vilsack will be primary USDEC spokesman
In his new role as CEO and president of USDEC, Vilsack will lead and oversee promotional and research activities, regulatory affairs and trade policy initiatives. He also will represent the organization as the primary spokesman and help develop a strategy for building sales and consumer trust in US dairy.
He also will facilitate working with other industry groups, including the Innovation Center for the US Dairy, the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Milk Producers Federation to ensure their needs are met and the full value chain sees positive results, according to USDEC.
Reflecting on this opportunity, Vilsack said in a statement provided by USDEC that he looks forward to partnering industry stakeholders to advance the council’s mission and strengthen trust in American dairy.
“Growing the global market for US dairy products is essential to the future of the dairy industry and America’s dairy farmers. I’ve spent my career in public service as a tireless advocate for farmers and American agriculture and can think of no better way to continue this service than by leading the US Dairy Export Council,” he said.
Suber steps down
Vilsack will succeed Tom Suber, who has served as the only president of USDEC since it was founded in 1995. He retired at the end of 2016, after helping guide the growth of global US dairy exports from 5% of US milk production to a high of 15.5%, according to USDEC.
Suber “leaves an impressive legacy at USDEC,” thanks to his “tremendous contributions to the growth of US dairy exports and elevating US dairy’s position globally,” Thomas Gallagher, CEO of Dairy Management Inc., said in a written statement.
President Elect Trump has yet to name a replacement for Vilsack as the head of USDA.