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The Associated Press October 6, 2010, 3:44PM ET

Egg recall is key issue in ag secretary race

Republican Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey is facing a challenge from Fairfield dairy farmer Francis Thicke in a state race that has the two men on opposing sides of the national food safety debate.

Food safety took center stage earlier this year after more than a half billion eggs produced at two Iowa farms were recalled after more than 1,600 people became sick after eating eggs contaminated with salmonella. The recall raised questions about oversight at egg farms, which are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Northey, who is seeking a second term, argues the FDA should retain that oversight to avoid inconsistencies that could occur if each state adopted its own rules. Democratic challenger Thicke would push for Iowa to adopt its own food safety rules because he fears new rules enacted by the FDA don't go far enough.

Thicke, 60, claims egg safety in Iowa has "fallen through the cracks."

"The egg safety oversight is 50 years behind the times," Thicke said.

He said Iowa should adopt egg safety rules similar to those in Maine, where Thicke said vaccination programs and regular inspections for salmonella are mandatory. Thicke said Maine also requires egg producers to have a veterinarian on staff, with producers paying all the costs of the program.

"We produce more eggs than any other state in the nation and we should be a leader in egg safety," Thicke said. "We should be out front, assuring the safety of our eggs and the integrity of Iowa's name. It's a black-eye for Iowa that this happened."

Northey, 51, a Spirit Lake farmer, disagrees that Iowa should adopt its own food safety rules.

"I think it's important to have federal regulations on food safety and that it would not be good to have them vary across all 50 states," Northey said.

He said new FDA rules that took effect in early July would likely have prevented the problems seen at the two northern Iowa egg farms at the center of the recall.

Egg safety is only one topic that the candidates want voters to consider.

Thicke said Iowa needs to look toward the next generation of wind energy and biofuel systems to let farmers supply their own power and generate income by selling their surplus energy to power companies. He supports the building of mid-size, farmer-owned wind-turbines on farms across the state and the expansion of biofuels.

"It would put profits in farmers' pockets and power agriculture here in Iowa, not cars," Thicke said.

Thicke said he opposes future public funding for ethanol plants but believes the state should protect past investments in ethanol which have led to economic development and expanded markets for crop producers.

He also called for renewal of the ethanol tax credit saying "we certainly don't want to see the ethanol industry shut down because of the abrupt ending of the subsidies the industry depends on."

He proposed a moratorium on state subsidies and tax credits for new ethanol plants.

Thicke said he supports phasing out tax credits as the biofuels industry becomes more self-sufficient.

Thicke also would promote increasing local production of fruits and vegetables, which he said would create jobs and add millions of dollars to the state's economy.

Northey said he wants to continue and expand programs to protect Iowa's waterways. He noted better timing nitrogen applications to farm fields and the use of more cover crops that would be grown in the fall and spring, holding nitrogen in the soil and making it available for crops planted in the spring.

"It's the idea of being able to develop some more science-based strategies to reduce nutrients in our waterways," Northey said.

He said it's important for Iowa to rely not only on federal regulations to better control nitrogen in the state's waterways.

"We need to be proactive to make sure we have solutions that fit Iowa and don't just take solutions from other places and try to make them work in Iowa," Northey said.

Northey supports renewal of the ethanol tax credit that expires Dec. 31. He also supports development of biodiesel from other materials and using byproducts from that process for livestock feed.

Northey also pointed to the streamlining of his agency's operations and its ability to continue providing services despite budget cuts. The department's budget has been reduced about 20 percent in the past two years, with staffing declining about the same amount over the past three years.

The department's budget is now online, but Northey said he thinks it can still do more to be transparent.

"We can do a better job of putting things online to let people see what we're doing and a better understanding of what we spend money on," he said.

Northey said he would also continue trying to educate Iowans about the role of agriculture in the state.

"It's not that people don't understand. It's that they have a misunderstanding of what happens," Northey said. "There has to be more transparency to let people know what's happening and explain that there's good reasons why we're doing those things."

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