Howard Magwire has enjoyed a lifelong involvement with the U.S. egg industry. A native of Wakefield, Neb., he worked in the local packing plant as a teenager. His career with the USDA extended from 1968 to 2003 during which time he was instrumental in devising programs to improve the quality and safety of both shell eggs and derived products.
Egg Industry: Please share with us your experience in the U.S. egg industry.
Howard Magwire: I started working in the M.G. Waldbaum Company (now Michael Foods) "egg" plant in Wakefield, Neb. when I was 16. During my junior year in college, I learned that the U.S. Department of Agriculture was looking for a part-time laboratory technician and Dan Gardiner and Dr. Milton Waldbaum urged me to apply. It was simpler to transition from industry to USDA back then and I started working for USDA. After graduation from Wayne State College majoring in chemistry and spending a couple of years in the army, I accepted a full-time position with the Department.
Over more than 30 years with the Department I was involved in many egg and poultry programs, initially as an egg products inspector and shell egg grader and eventually in determining policy for the egg products inspection program, egg and poultry grading, market news and procurement for federal supplemental nutrition programs. I retired as AMS deputy administrator for poultry programs in 2004 implementing policy and regulatory activities for shell eggs and then subsequently for egg products.
After spending 28 years in our nation's capital, I started looking at where I wanted to go next. That process came to a halt in early 2004 when Al Pope and Gene Gregory offered me a part- time job working with Gene on UEP's animal welfare program. After a few months, they talked me into working full-time and resuming the commute to an office in D.C.
Along with long-time UEP Washington Counsel Mike McCloud and Randy Green, I work to advance the interests of the shell egg and egg products industries and represent producers on the Hill and at the regulatory agencies.
EI: What are some of the major legislative challenges facing the industry?
HM: For many years, egg producers have involved themselves in addressing environmental concerns. The UEP has been proactive in anticipating federal regulations and advising producers. With the advent of the current administration there has been greater emphasis on greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and release of nutrients from CAFOs. Applying scientific principles and data collected by other UEP staff and its Environmental Committee and universities, we have made a strong case for realistic controls.
EI: Energy also appears to be an emerging issue?
HM: As the world population grows we must conserve energy and develop new resources. Cap-and-trade, more commonly referred to as cap-and-tax, has not gone on since the House passed its bill last summer. We will continue to see legislation focusing on sustainable energy sources. Many of our producers continue to have concerns over the impact of diverting corn to ethanol production. As you know, two-thirds of our production costs are for feed.
EI: Food safety appears to be a concern of the current legislature
HM: Over the last few years, food safety has been the concern of anyone running for national office. The egg industry, of course, is already strictly regulated, more so than most other sectors of the food industry.
The FDA Final Rule addressing Salmonella enteritidis in eggs is the most recent example. Due to this, we do not believe that food safety legislation now under consideration by the Senate will impact egg producers to the same extent that it will affect other, less heavily regulated industries.
Generally the UEP sees some good things coming out of new food safety legislation. These changes will rectify deficiencies in the nation's food safety system without creating undue problems for our industry. For example, we believe there should be a greater emphasis on regulation of the safety of imported foods and food and feed ingredients.
There, of course, are certain things in the legislation passed by the House and being considered in the Senate that we would like to see changed. To name one, we do not think producers should have to pay user-fees for the pleasure of coming under additional government regulation.
EI: What about a single food agency?
HM: This is a perennial consideration. For now, the odds are low. Congress will likely pass the FDA-related legislation this year to strengthen that agency's authorities. Reportedly, the administration will eventually propose changes to USDA's food safety laws, and that is when advocates of a single agency might see an opening. For now, however, there does not seem to be major support for the idea in Congress, outside of some traditional advocates.
UEP has not taken a position on this issue. Contrary to the picture often painted by some in the media, based on our experience, USDA and FDA are each fully capable of making their regulatory presence known.
We do have concerns about the loss of institutional knowledge whenever a major government reorganization is undertaken. Whenever a profound change in organizational structure occurs, there is a loss of knowledge through retirement and separation and, unfortunately, sometimes just a lack of interest by managers and executives in the new agency.
The Department of Homeland Security has been around for a half dozen years now and still faces organizational issues. It takes time for appropriate formal and informal communication channels between the regulated industry and government to be reestablished.
EI: Are there any other legislative issues of importance to the industry?
HM: Absolutely. We have concerns over regulation, or lack of regulation, of commodities markets, congressional inability to pass comprehensive immigration reform, animal rights, and the move to limit use of antibiotics to name just a few.
UEP and its Washington counsel have been extremely active in all of these areas. But nothing is easy. For example, we thought immigration reform would be taken up before now, but this issue has been sidelined by the more urgent concerns relating to the economy, job creation and health reform. We remain optimistic however and believe that we again see signs that Congress will address the immigration and other issues that are negatively impacting all of American animal agriculture.
EI: Do you anticipate any improvement in funding for research which will benefit the egg industry?
HM: One of the problems we face is that there are fewer representatives and senators with a farming background. We are very fortunate in that Collin Peterson from Minnesota, the chairman of the House Agricultural Committee, ranking member Frank Lucas from Oklahoma and others as champions of animal agriculture.
Regardless, we are functioning in an era of budgetary restraints. This is evident in allocations to the USDA Agricultural Research Service. Poultry disease and nutrition are also under-funded. To maintain productivity, safety and to supply an emerging population we need to fund both research and regulatory activities.
EI: What is the impact of exports?
HM: Unlike other segments of the U.S. poultry industry, egg and egg product exports are a relatively small part of our industry. However, every time a trading partner applies a new non-tariff trade barrier to stop our exports, there is a disproportionate negative impact on egg producers and further processors.
We are continually addressing trade barriers which are disruptive and impede progress. In the coming year we look forward to a more level playing field where we can compete fairly.
We expect that shell exports will grow slowly with shipments to NAFTA nations and to the Caribbean. That is, if new environmental requirements, the animal rights activists’ agenda, food safety laws and wild commodity speculation don't price us out of these and existing markets.
EI: How can the industry help you in your activities?
HM: The most important thing individual members of the industry can do to help us is follow the absolute best practices for animal welfare, food safety and the environment. A single incident can destroy years of trust and acceptance by members of Congress, regulators, and consumers. All of us must endeavor to operate our farms and plants according to the highest ethnical principles.
Every producer and further processor member of UEP and the American Egg Association should be involved in association committees and meetings. These associations serve as a single voice for the industry. But, it is also important that individual producers are citizen advocates. Our legislators listen to their constituents and we need to continually interact with our representatives and senators, get to know them, let them understand our problems and the contribution we make to the economy and the food supply. We should support UEP's Spring Legislative Meeting which is a wonderful opportunity to interact with decision makers in Congress.
I would encourage producers to support EggPAC which is administered by the United Egg Association, independently of the UEP.
EI: Do you have a message for the industry?
HM: From my long experience and contact with the egg industry I believe that we have a great future if we remain proactive in addressing existing and emerging problems. This industry has addressed many challenges over the years and always met those challenges.
When I first worked with the industry, it was facing the dark cloud of cholesterol. While it has literally taken decades, the medical profession, scientists, nutritionists and hopefully one day, even government agencies recognize that cholesterol is basically a non-issue. Further, more people than ever before recognize the great nutritional benefit and value that eggs represent.
The industry has always been ahead of others on food safety. The 5-Star Program and our voluntary SE efforts are evidence of this. Decades ago, the egg and egg products industry successfully lobbied for the Egg Products Inspection Act. This industry-driven legislation has been validated by the increased safety of our nation's egg and egg products supply. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control have not linked an outbreak of human illness to egg products in almost 40 years. Not a bad record.
I know that the industry will continue to make contributions to the nutritional needs of our nation.