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IRS to assist USDA in ensuring eligibility for farm program payments

WILLMAR -- In response to the discovery that federal farm program benefits totaling nearly $50 million had been issued to producers that did not meet payment eligibility requirements, officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Internal Revenue Service have announced a new collaborative effort to ensure that high-income individuals and entities who request USDA benefits meet the income limits of the 2008 farm bill.

Beginning with the 2009 crop year and for successive years, in order to receive USDA payments, all recipients will be required to sign a separate form which grants IRS the authority to provide income information to USDA for verification purposes.

The information provided by the IRS to USDA's Farm Service Agency will not include actual tax data for individuals and entities. In addition, all disclosure and Privacy Act provisions will be adhered to by Farm Service Agency.

In October 2008, the U.S. Government Accounting Office released a report stating that because the USDA does not have access to tax return information, it could not verify that farm program payments were being issued to qualified individuals and entities.

The report also found that of the 1.8 million individuals and entities receiving farm program payments during the years 2003-2006, more than 2,500 had an average adjusted gross income that made them ineligible for benefits.

The 2008 farm bill mandates that recipients of most federal farm program payments, including direct payments, are not eligible for such payments if their gross non-farm average income for the three previous tax years exceeds $500,000.

In addition, direct payments cannot be issued to participants whose average adjusted gross farm income for the three previous tax years exceeds $750,000.

Participants are also ineligible for conservation payments if their non-farm average gross income for the three previous tax years exceeds $1 million, unless at least two-thirds of the income is derived from farming.

E. coli vaccine receives conditional license

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has issued a conditional license to Epitopix LLC of Willmar for a vaccine to reduce the prevalence of E. coli O157 in feedlot cattle.

USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service granted the conditional license following the acceptance of data supporting product safety and a reasonable expectation of efficacy. The company will conduct additional potency and efficacy studies during the one-year period of the conditional license.

E. coli O157:H7 can cause severe illness and death in humans who consume food tainted with the pathogen. A common path for the pathogen to enter the food supply is when muscle tissue becomes contaminated with E. coli from the intestinal tract of cattle during the slaughtering process.

Vaccines to reduce the prevalence of E. coli pathogens in cattle are one component of a wide-range of options to enhance food safety controls.

USDA rule will ban 'downer' cattle from slaughter

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced a final rule that will amend the federal meat inspection regulations to require a complete ban on the slaughter of cattle that become non-ambulatory, often referred to as "downer" cattle, at any time up to slaughter.

Under the rule, even cattle that become non-ambulatory from an acute injury after a pre-slaughter inspection will no longer be eligible to proceed to slaughter as "U.S. suspects." Instead, USDA inspectors will tag these cattle as "U.S. condemned" and prohibit them from being slaughtered.

Under the provisions of this final rule, cattle that become non-ambulatory prior to slaughter must be humanely euthanized.

In addition, the final rule requires that slaughter establishments notify USDA inspection personnel whenever cattle become non-ambulatory after passing the pre-slaughter inspection.

Discontinuing the case-by-case disposition of cattle that become non-ambulatory after a pre-slaughter inspection will eliminate the time that USDA veterinarians spend conducting additional inspections on these animals, thereby increasing the inspection time program personnel can allocate to other inspection activities.

USDA officials expect that the amended slaughter requirements will enhance consumer confidence in our nation's food supply, while also improving the humane handling of injured or sick cattle.

Wes Nelson is executive director of the USDA Farm Service Agency in Kandiyohi County.