Whoever is tapped by the White House to succeed Veneman, there will be no shortage of issues to confront. Chief among them will be ongoing efforts to detect and prevent bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE.
This week, USDA announced that initial tests on a cow of unknown origin were "inconclusive." That means more testing will take place to determine if the animal actually carried the brain-wasting disease, commonly called Mad Cow. Results should be known in four to seven days.
Though the cow in question never entered the food or feed chain, the news rocked an industry still recovering from last winter's first official case of BSE in the U.S. We'll have more on the market impact of the announcement later in the show.
The timing of the inconclusive test coincided with another dicey issue for livestock producers: country of origin labeling. Some Republicans are using this week's lame duck session of Congress to try and force changes to a law that has proved divisive in farm country.
Will there or won't there be mandatory country of origin labeling --or COOL-- for red meat and other agricultural products? Several supporters of the labeling are worried about House Republican efforts to insert a provision into the 2005 omnibus appropriations bill that would make COOL a voluntary program instead of mandatory.
While the mandatory COOL program was passed in the 2002 farm bill, the deadline for implementation already has been pushed back from this year to September 30, 2006.
A lobbyist for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association told the agri-news organization DTN he would support any effort to end mandatory labeling.
The NCBA and other opponents of the program say it is too costly and bureaucratically burdensome for meatpackers and grocers.
A pro-COOL coalition of 95 groups -- including the National Farmers Union and the Consumer Federation of America --sent all members of Congress a letter urging them to oppose any amendment that would weaken or repeal mandatory labeling. Supporters contend the majority of Americans want to know the origin of their food and the program can be used as a marketing tool for the food industry.
At least one Senator, democrat Tim Johnson from South Dakota, said he would make his decision to support the next secretary of agriculture contingent on that person's support for mandatory country of origin labeling.