Addressing the Intervet/Schering Plough Cattle Feeders Summit this week, Chandler Keys, VP of government affairs & industry relations at JBS Swift, discussed the climate in WashingtonD.C. and implications for the beef business.

The atmosphere in the nation’s capital, he says, has changed dramatically over the past year, with the new administration and Democratic control of both houses of Congress. The center of gravity has shifted from Wall Street to WashingtonD.C.

Keys notes that the economy, two wars and health-care reform will dominate the political landscape for at least the rest of this year, as other issues take a back seat. Climate change has been in the forefront as the House of Representatives made legislation a priority this year, but Keys says he doesn’t expect the Senate to address the issue for some time. Infighting among Democrats, he adds, will cause delays as much as resistance from Republicans.

Food safety is getting a lot attention in D.C. and Keys says the entire beef-production system needs to make eliminating E. coli O157:H7 a top priority.

On the environmental front, the environmental community is back in power, Keys says, wielding more influence than they have had since the Carter administration, and they will exert pressure on legislation affecting agriculture.

On a related note, he expects there will be a big push to remove antibiotics from use for “growth promotion” in livestock. He questions how activists and politicians will define growth promotion, as some products are used at levels that promote digestive health, which allows better weight gains.

Animal welfare issues will continue to gain momentum. Keys points out that America is run by suburbanites. Much of our middle-class population have been suburbanites for several generations and have no connection to farms. They know nothing about livestock production other than that they want assurances that animals are treated well. And politicians could be the ones setting the definition of “treated well.”

Ethanol production is mandated and is not going away, he says, “unless there is a wreck in the food industry. And that has not happened yet, except at your (farm) level.” The general public, he adds, does not care about farm prices and will only pay attention when the issue hits their pocketbooks. The Iowa presidential primaries are the reason we have ethanol, Keys says, as Presidents Bush and Obama campaigned in support of the issue to gain early momentum in the nation’s first primary.

Industry concentration and competitiveness are high on the administration’s agenda, and Keys says he expects USDA to pursue changes in the livestock market structure.

The current emphasis on sustainability and local food production at USDA also concerns Keys. Less than 200,000 U.S. farm families currently account over 80 percent of our food production, feeding more than 300 million Americans and millions more worldwide. Can we replace that productivity with small organic farms and gardens, he asks? Probably not.