AP Interview: Ag leader supports renegotiating trade pact

By MARY CLARE JALONICK Markets Associated Press

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who last week helped persuade President Donald Trump not to abandon the North American Free Trade Agreement, said Wednesday that the administration would renegotiate the pact with Canada and Mexico with a focus on what has worked and what hasn't.

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Trump appeared to be on the brink of pulling out of the trade agreement last week after strongly criticizing it during the 2016 campaign as a job-killer. But the former Georgia governor was one of several top officials who helped convince him not to do so, pointing out its benefits to agriculture and the potentially disruptive effect of an abrupt withdrawal.

"I tried to demonstrate to him that in the agricultural market sometimes words like 'withdraw' or 'terminate' can have a major impact on markets," Perdue said in an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press. "I think the president made a very wise decision for the benefit of many agricultural producers across the country."

Perdue was only in his second day in office at USDA when he found himself urgently arguing agriculture's case to the president. As Trump balances his strong dislike of trade agreements like NAFTA, which he called a "disaster" on the campaign trail, Perdue is prepared to continue that role.

Still, he's supportive of renegotiating the pact and says that while it has been good for Midwestern grain and dairy farmers, it hasn't been as beneficial for some other growers, including fruit and vegetable producers in South Florida.

"These things will be done individually, whether it's milk, whether it's with the Canadians and the Mexicans, whether it's fruit and vegetables, whether it's feed grains, whether it's oilseeds, cotton and the many products that we grow," Perdue said. "All those will be on the table as we come back and say what's working and what's not?"

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As for his meeting with Trump, Perdue says the president was "well aware" that he was elected with strong margins in farm country. That was something agricultural commodity groups desperately sought to remind the White House last week as Trump considered withdrawing from the pact, with the head of the National Corn Growers Association saying in a statement: "Mr. President, America's corn farmers helped elect you."

Despite his decision not to withdraw, Perdue says Trump is very serious about changes.

"I think we can come up with a better plan," Perdue said.

In his first week on the job, Perdue announced changes to Obama administration rules that make school meals healthier, delaying upcoming standards to lower sodium in meals and allowing some schools to get waivers from whole grain requirements. Perdue said the move "is a pause in the process to give us and school lunch professionals the opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of the program."

He did have some potentially good news for nutrition advocates who were frustrated by the changes. Asked if the department will act on a request from some schools who say requirements to take fruits and vegetables on the lunch line are costly and wasteful, he said he'll take a look but will be hard to convince.

"I'm a big fruit and vegetable kind of guy," he said. "Frankly, I have no immediate plans, and I'm not sure I have any future plans, to reduce fruits and vegetables in wholesome meals."

On USDA's food stamp program, which cost more than $70 billion last year and has been the target of some proposed cuts by Republicans, Perdue said he plans to investigate how much states are spending administratively. Those amounts vary widely and the federal government shares part of that cost, he said.

Perdue said he's already met with Maine Gov. Paul LePage, who has pushed USDA to allow states to ban food stamp recipients from buying junk food. The Obama administration wouldn't grant LePage's request, and Perdue didn't say how he would rule on the issue. But he said LePage, a Republican, "has some very creative programs that we're exploring."

Perdue is also inheriting a decision by Trump administration officials to remove animal welfare inspection reports, enforcement records and other information about the treatment of animals from USDA's website. Some of the documents have been restored, but many are still inaccessible.

Department officials said in February that they removed the records because they are trying to balance the need for transparency with rules protecting individual privacy rights. Though the decision came before he was in office, Perdue says he agrees with it and the department is reviewing the issue.

"I'm not very much of a name it and shame it kind of guy," Perdue said. "If I want to call somebody's name out, I want to make sure they've done wrong."