The secretary-designee of a department responsible for a wide swath of government services impacting all Wisconsin residents, as well as tourists visiting the state, made a stop in Rhinelander last week as he makes the rounds of the state.
Gov. Tony Evers nominated Bradley M. Pfaff to be the secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP). He has been on the job for six months while awaiting a confirmation hearing by the state Senate.
A Wisconsin native and self-described “farm boy,” Pfaff worked as deputy chief of staff to Congressman Ron Kind (D-La Crosse), and for the United States Department of Agriculture, before accepting the appointment from Evers. He sat down with The Times’ sister paper Northwoods River News for an interview July 19.
“I’m a western Wisconsin farm boy, so I think that’s a beautiful part of the world, but it’s pretty beautiful up here, as well,” Pfaff said.
While he is a secretary-designee for now, Pfaff noted the committee overseeing him voted his nomination out of committee 9-0.
“However, the full Senate has to take up all of us,” he said. “But I’m a farm boy and there are always chores to get done and I’ll get those chores done if I have ‘designee’ next to my name or not.”
The responsibilities of his agency impact the everyday lives of Wisconsinites, he explained.
“All 5.7 million people that live in this state and those that work and vacation in this state are impacted — I hope positively — on a daily basis (by DATCP),” Pfaff said. “Obviously, we do everything we can to help market the products that come out of our farm fields and dairy barns, but also we have food safety. Those are the milk inspections as well as the state inspected meat facilities. We need to make sure we keep food safe, it’s very important.”
The agency also works with county and city health departments to make sure food preparation operations like supermarket delis and restaurants are clean and properly handling the food they sell. DATCP also regulates lodging such as hotels.
“Tourism is very important here, we oversee the bed and breakfasts, the swimming pools in these various hotels,” Pfaff said. “Again, we work with the local health departments, but we oversee all of that.”
Another important part of DATCP’s mission Pfaff discussed was consumer protection.
“If there is one issue in particular that I have heard, on a bipartisan basis, in the legislature and wherever I travel is ‘thanks for what you do on consumer protection, but you’ve got to do more,’” he said. “Way too much is happening here, too many nefarious sources are coming in. Everything from financial data to privacy information to what can we do to personally protect who we are from outside scams. And, of course, not only do these telephone scams have our area codes, they have our local exchanges now.”
Pfaff said he has asked his team to look at every rule and regulation already on the books to see if they are adequate to combat the scams.
“We have to be fully enforcing what we’ve got,” he said. “Because I want to make sure that the legislature, who asks over and over if we are protecting the people of the state. And the thing is, this is more than the elderly, this is people of all ages from the very young, quite frankly to those who are elderly, they all are being impacted right now. So I want to make sure we do everything we can without unnecessarily and unfairly impacting our business in this state, because we need them to grow financially. But we need to protect our consumers, our people.”
DATCP also manages the telemarketers’ no-call list.
“That is something we’re reviewing over and over and over to make sure that we have enough teeth in that and what is the level of authority that we have,” Pfaff said. “And again, is the authority that we have right now keeping up with the modern technology that is taking place right now? Because we have people who may be sitting in a foreign country, yet they have not only a local area code, but also a local exchange (phone number).”
Pfaff said his agency is trying to be as proactive as possible while using the existing rules and regulations on the books.
“I’m not one to sit there and go to the legislature and demand more authority, because quite frankly if we have those authorities and we’re not properly implementing the law the way it is (that is not effective),” Pfaff said.
Another part of the broad reach of the agency includes weights and measures. Everything from checking the accuracy of scales in supermarkets to gas pumps.
“We’ll go down to the deli for another example. Those are tested regularly to make sure those things are meeting the proper code, same with gas pumps,” Pfaff said. “Wisconsin is a national leader on that. We are in the forefront in making sure that we are using the most current technology as well as working very closely with our convenience store and petroleum operators. Nobody wants improperness when it comes to that because A, we pay too much for gasoline as it is, and B, we want to make sure this is done right.”
‘The people’s department’
Pfaff said DATCP also works closely with the Department of Natural Resources and private industry to make sure water, air and soil is not polluted.
“As you know, we’re a very resource-rich state and that is a tremendous asset for us,” he said. “But at the same time, we have to make sure that we find the right balance.”
Pfaff said what surprises a lot of people is that despite its wide range of responsibility, DATCP employs only approximately 600 people.
“If you look at our department versus say the DNR or the Department of Transportation or the Department of Health Services or Corrections, we are very much a mid-size department,” he said. “But I call us ‘the people’s department’ because I think that every individual that lives and works in the state is dependent on what we do, and I think we do a very good job of being responsive to the needs of the people of this state. Because we all have to eat and we all want to make sure that we are protected as consumers.”
Not very many other states have an agency that has comparable responsibilities to his, he noted.
“Since statehood, agriculture has played such a leading role, and the legislature recognized that fact that while we want to continue to grow our agriculture community and industry, and the consumer protection went right along with that,” Pfaff said. “And, of course, the trade angle is important, as well. That’s not just international trade, which is extremely important, but it is important that we make sure that we can have commerce not only interstate, but also intrastate. And that’s when you start getting into the food safety and you start getting into the weights and measures. That’s all part of the internal commerce but, as we know, we’re now living in a world economy. We have to be able to find markets wherever they may be.”
Pfaff said the current tariff war that President Donald Trump is engaged in was started to protect American companies from Chinese counterfeiting of products, it hasn’t made his job any easier.
“I want to be very clear, the Chinese government needed to be held accountable for stealing America’s intellectual property,” Pfaff said. “You cannot participate in a worldwide economy and do piracy. But I do not think that the family farmers in this state should pay the economic price for that. I think it is a real stretch to have some dairy farmer or some corn or grain farmer here in northern Wisconsin or in western Wisconsin, wherever they may live, have to pay the economic price for this.”
According to Pfaff, there are other ways to address the unlawful duplication of American products by the Chinese.
“China is a very large global presence, we need to recognize that,” Pfaff said. “We also need to recognize, when it comes to Wisconsin agricultural products, China’s number two as far as purchasing our products. Canada is number one, China two, Mexico three and then South Korea and Japan. We need to make sure that we find markets for our products and, of course, international consumers are part of that market because the U.S. only has about four percent of the world’s population.”
“We all know that we grow more food on our farms and in our dairy barns then we could ever possibly eat ourselves,” he added.
One thing Pfaff pointed to with pride is the agricultural supply chain that exists in Wisconsin. Milk alone can be turned into so many different products desired by consumers across the globe.
“And then there are all those ancillary jobs, from mechanical to engineering to financial. $88 billion is what agriculture contributes to our state annually,” Pfaff said. “One out of every nine people that have a job in our state have a job related to agriculture.”
Jamie Taylor may be reached via email at [email protected] online.com.