INDEPENDENCE — Iowa’s senior U.S. senator says he supports the Trump administration’s plan to give the pork industry more authority to regulate itself, a plan that includes cutting federal meat inspectors at a time the United States is guarding against a swine virus now hitting China.
“It’s similar to what Obama did with chickens and it’s working OK with chickens,” Sen. Chuck Grassley said after a town hall meeting Tuesday in Independence. “I think you’re concluding that just because you have government inspection you don’t have any diseases that get out of control. Don’t always have faith in government inspection because we’ve had a lot of recalls of meat.”
During the Obama administration, while former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack was U.S. agriculture secretary, poultry plant owners were given more power over safety inspections, though that administration canceled plans to increase slaughter-line speeds.
Starting as soon as next month, the Trump administration plans to reduce government inspectors at pork plants by about 40 percent — replacing them with plant employees — and impose no limits on line speeds, according to an article in the Washington Post.
Grassley said the United States needs tighter controls at the border to prevent the swine virus from infecting American hogs. Iowa, the nation’s top swine-producing state, had 23 million hogs and pigs as of March 1, up 4 percent from last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported.
Grassley, the most senior Republican in the Senate, answered more than two dozen questions during a rapid-fire and often contentious town hall meeting at the Independence Public Library. Jumping from drug costs to aid for dairy farmers to tax policy, he walked around the crowded room to get close enough to hear each question.
“You’re chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. What is your plan to cover those of us with pre-existing conditions?” Robin Stone, of Manchester, asked in reference to a recent Department of Justice statement that the Affordable Care Act should be struck down.
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“I don’t think the courts are going to declare it unconstitutional,” Grassley said.
“You’ve voted seven times to repeal it,” Stone continued.
“The Affordable Care Act is the law of the land and it won’t be repealed by Congress,” Grassley said. “If we passed it in the Senate, it won’t be passed in the House. Don’t ask me a hypothetical question. It’s not going to come up.”
Nelson Wehnar, of Independence, handed Grassley a small vial of eyedrops Wehnar said cost $285. He mentioned a friend who was bitten by a rattlesnake and was charged $40,000 for an antivenom shot.
“Why don’t you introduce legislation to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices?” Wehnar asked to applause from the audience.
Grassley said if the federal government regulated drug prices, Medicare patients would have fewer choices.
“If you want the formulary to be less, maybe your doctor can’t prescribe something,” he said. “I’ve started with the premise you and your doctor ought to be able to work out the medicine you ought to take.”
Jennifer Hamlett, of Aurora, got emotional as she described the financial challenges of raising a family and running a dairy farm.
“The Farm Bill does not go to farmers like everyone thinks,” she said. “The government is paying people more money to not work than to work. We need to bring that down a little to make them want to work.”
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Republicans last fall dropped stricter work requirements for food stamp recipients as part of getting the 2018 farm bill passed.
“I have sympathy to what you say,” Grassley said. But “if we’d gone along with what the House wanted to do, we wouldn’t have had any Farm Bill at all.”
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