Man admits guilt in bilking U.S. out of child-meal funds

Prentice Nigel Hall on Monday became the 17th person to be charged in an ongoing federal investigation into a conspiracy to defraud the U.S. Department of Agriculture by falsely claiming to have fed children in low-income areas in Arkansas. Hall pleaded guilty to a wire-fraud conspiracy charge before U.S. District Judge Leon Holmes, admitting that from Jan. 20, 2013, through June 12, 2013, he illegally obtained $882,667.95 by submitting five false claims that he had provided after-school snacks or meals to children in four central Arkansas locations. Hall filed the claims electronically as a state-approved sponsor for a USDA feeding program administered by the state Department of Human Services. Two former department employees, Gladys Elise Waits and Tonique Hatton, have pleaded guilty to participating in the fraud scheme by approving applications from sponsors they knew intended to commit fraud and also by approving the sponsors' designated feeding sites. In reality, far fewer children were fed than claimed, and in many cases, no children were ever fed. Waits and Hatton, both of whom are in prison, admitted to recruiting some of the fake sponsors and taking kickbacks as compensation. According to Hall's plea agreement, he claimed to operate an organization he called Creative Minds At-Risk, which he said provided food at four sites: one each in Little Rock, North Little Rock, Woodson and Mabelvale. Hall claimed to feed up to 847 children at a time at an address at 8508 Kanis Road in Little Rock. He also claimed to feed about the same number of children at 320 N. Locust St. in North Little Rock, at a Baptist church in Woodson and at 14036 Sardis Road in Mabelvale. All the claims were paid through electronic transfers that traveled through interstate commerce from the state to Hall's bank account, according to the felony information to which he pleaded guilty. When sentenced at a later date, Hall faces up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000, and Continue Reading

Bug experts warn hot summer will help insect population in U.S. to thrive

Get ready to bug out — an extremely hot, wet summer could bring an itch-inducing invasion of mosquitoes, ticks and other insects across the United States, experts warn. “We are bracing for a major bug war, if you will,” Mike Deutsch, an urban entomologist with Arrow Exterminating Company in New York, told Fox News on Wednesday. “If the summer is really hot and there is a lot of moisture like there has been the last month or so, the population of insects is going to be out of control,” Deutsch added. That’s because of the mild winter and early spring that allowed insects to survive the freezing temps and thrive, according to reports. Entomologists worry about the spread of mosquitoes and the potential threat of West Nile virus. In Illinois, a mild winter gave the Culex mosquito a head start in spawning, according to Mike Szyska, director of the Northwest Mosquito Abatement District. “We are seeing higher numbers than we normally see,” Szyska told the Pioneer Press newspaper. Another type of blood sucker, the aggresive Asian tiger mosquito, is known for breeding by the millions and biting during the day — as opposed to the nighttime hours other species prefer. The black-and-white striped insects are native to Southeast Asia, but have been moving north from Texas since the 1980s. “Scientists fear their increasing numbers could someday support an outbreak of the chikungunya virus, a disease characterized by severe joint pain that is common in Asia and Africa,” urban ecologist Marielle Anzelone wrote in the New York Times last month. NEWSWIRE Ticks are another pest that health officials across the country are worried about, particularly in the Northeast. But it’s not just mosquitoes that have some communities keeping swatters and sprays at the ready. Ticks are also gaining a major foothold, said Dominick Ninivaggi, superintendent of Mosquito Vector Continue Reading

Record U.S. drought: 1,000 counties in state of emergency; 30% of the nation’s corn crop at risk of being lost

Record heat waves, wildfires and a lack of rain have combined to create the most wide-spread drought conditions in decades, authorities announced. Almost 61 percent of the lower 48 states are in some type of drought condition, said authorities, the highest amount since record-keeping began a decade ago. Dry conditions extending from coast to coast are making many people's lives miserable.. "The recent heat and dryness is catching up with us on a national scale," Michael J. Hayes, director of the National Drought Mitigation Center, said in a press release. Over 1,000 counties in 26 states have been declared disaster areas because of drought, said the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If a county has suffered drought conditions for eight consecutive weeks, it qualifies as a disaster area, according to CNN. This designation allows farmers to apply for emergency loans carrying low-interest rates. "In the hottest areas last week, which were generally dry, crop conditions deteriorated quickly," wrote Rich Tinker in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Drought Monitor report. 30 percent of the nation's corn crop is in danger of being lost, according to Tinker, up from 22 percent last week. This would have a grave impact on the price of dairy and meat because of farmers' reliance on corn to feed cattle. Drought conditions have gotten so bad for farmers that "locally they were plowing corn (early) to feed cattle," in one area, said David Robinson of the New Jersey State Climate Office at Rutgers University. "When you ramp up the temperatures, when you ramp up the clear skies, its a recipe for problems," said Robinson. Half of the nation's farmland is in poor to very poor condition, wrote Tinker, up from only 28 percent the previous week. "The hot, dry conditions have also allowed for a dramatic increase in wildfire activity," Tinker also wrote. Raging wildfires scorched over 1.3 million acres of land in June alone, said a report on the Continue Reading

Mexico vs U.S.: The tariff war is on

MEXICO CITY — U.S. officials are assessing the cost of new Mexican tariffs that take effect Thursday in retaliation for a U.S. decision to cancel a cross-border program that gave Mexican truckers access to their northern neighbor's highways. The tariffs affect about $2.4 billion in annual trade and 89 U.S. products, ranging from fruit and wine to washing machines, according to the Mexican government. Assistant Economy Secretary Beatriz Leycegui warned the list could grow unless there is progress toward resolving the trucking dispute. The U.S. was required under the North American Free Trade Agreement to grant Mexican trucks full access to its highways by January 2000, but domestic opposition led U.S. legislators to delay the opening until a pilot program allowing some trucks was instituted in 2007. The U.S. ended that program last week — a move that Mexican Economy Secretary Gerardo Ruiz Mateos called "wrong, protectionist and a clear violation" of NAFTA. The 1994 agreement allows Mexico to introduce retaliatory tariffs equal to the amount of trade lost by the truck ban. Many U.S. officials and exporters responded with concern. "In good times, an economy may be able to weather this kind of thing. But now it's devastating," said Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan, whose district is home to cherry farmers, manufacturers and chemical producers such as Dow Chemical Co. that will be affected. The tariffs apply to 36 agricultural and 53 industrial products, including onions, strawberries, shampoo, toothpaste, pet food, books, pencils and dishwashers. The only item facing a 45-percent tax is fresh grapes. Some 55 other products will be taxed at 20 percent, and the remaining 33 items at 10 to 15 percent. NAFTA normally exempts agricultural products from such duties. The U.S. Department of Agriculture was still assessing the cost of the tariffs. "We have alerted all the industry associations that represent these producers, the state regional Continue Reading

President Trump appoints state Sen. Jim Tracy to U.S. Department of Agriculture office

Longtime Republican state Sen. Jim Tracy has been appointed by President Donald Trump to serve as state director for an office within the U.S. Department of Agriculture.The position is with the USDA's Rural Development office, which offers a variety of loans and grants to businesses and families.Tracy is set to serve a state director of the rural developing office. He replaces Harriet Cannon, who served as interim director after Bobby Goode resigned from the position in January. Tracy's appointment does not require any congressional approval.As of publication it is not clear whether Tracy will need to resign from his position in the state Senate. Tracy, R-Shelbyville, was first elected to the Senate in 2004 and has steadily risen the ranks over the years. He previously served as chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and became Speaker Pro Tempore earlier this year. In 2014, Tracy - who is an insurance agent and former basketball referee - launched a congressional bid, narrowly losing to U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais in the Republican primary. Tracy's potential departure, along with anticipated exits by Sens. Mark Norris and Bill Ketron, marks a significant change in Republican leadership in the Senate.Norris and Sen. Doug Overbey are awaiting congressional approval after being nominated to become a federal judge and U.S. Attorney, respectively. Lt. Gov. Randy McNally praised Trump's appointment of Tracy."Since (Tracy's) election in 2004, he has been right in the middle of the Republican revolution in Tennessee as we cut taxes, reduced spending and made state government more transparent and efficient," McNally said."Jim has always had a passion for agriculture and I know he will excel in promoting economic development in our rural areas."In addition to the anticipated changes in Senate leadership, the House is set to undergo a significant change with Continue Reading

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson criticizes post-Irma food aid program, asks for extensions

Florida residents who need food assistance after Hurricane Irma have been turned away and that angers one lawmaker.In the Fort Myers area earlier this week, needy families couldn’t make it through lines in the final hour Tuesday to fill out applications for food aid, according to a letter Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., sent Thursday to the secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.The federal agency provides aid formerly known as food stamps through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.The federal agency also funds D-SNAP, a food aid program after disasters for people not enrolled in SNAP.“For people who were not able to make it through the line, the state is suggesting that they drive hours to wait at another county’s application site, which I suspect would make the situation even worse for residents of those counties,” Nelson said. “This doesn’t make any sense, especially considering the individuals applying for (disaster food assistance) often do not have the job flexibility, transportation or disposable income to make such a trip.”As of late Thursday, the office for USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue had not responded to Nelson’s request for an extension for applications for disaster food assistance be issued, an aide to the senator said in an email.Earlier this week, the Florida Department of Children and Families, which administers SNAP benefits, announced additional days for people in Miami-Dade and Broward counties to sign up Nov. 7-9 for disaster aid benefits.DCF had sent a letter Oct. 17 to the federal agency, requesting a time extension for Broward and Miami-Dade counties, as well as all other counties.The USDA responded to the state Oct. 19, granting the extension for Miami-Dade and Broward.But the federal agency said consideration would be given on a county-by-county basis elsewhere after the state submitted data to justify the need in other communities. The federal agency said Continue Reading

U.S. sets record for hogs

A look at futures prices on commodities that impact the Des Moines metro area and greater Iowa.U.S. pig farmers are running wild and now have a record number of hogs, according to a quarterly report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture released on Thursday. Total inventories stand at 73.5 million animals, up 2 percent from last year, which knocked prices to the lowest level of the year, trading below 55 cents per pound this week.For consumers, this abundance of pork should lead to lower prices at the store as well, giving savvy shoppers a chance to buy up cheap chops, hams, and bacon.German Chancellor Angela Merkel suffered a major electoral setback this week, muddying the outlook for her rule and the future of the European Union.Germany’s two mainstream parties, the Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democrats both lost substantial support to fringe parties, another sign of global desires for change. Especially shocking to many Germans was the rise of the right-wing Alternative for Germany Party, which placed third in the election.Going forward, Merkel must navigate a Parliament with six different parties, including significant forces that are opposed to immigration and greater integration with Europe.Germany is the largest economy in the European Union, and potential discord there or a threat of less German involvement in the EU sent financial markets reeling. The eurocurrency fell to a six-week low near $1.17 and could fall farther if Merkel cannot cobble together a governing coalition.U.S. farmers produced more wheat than expected this year, per the USDA. This summer’s drought in the Upper Midwest, especially North Dakota, damaged wheat production, but farmers likely produced a sufficient wheat crop.In its quarterly report released on Friday morning, the USDA raised projections for the spring wheat crop and generally showed more wheat for this year than most analysts were expecting. This news knocked Minneapolis spring wheat Continue Reading

U.S. may impose tougher curbs to contain bird flu in Arkansas

U.S. authorities are considering imposing tougher restrictions in Arkansas to contain a virulent strain of avian flu in the heart of America's poultry region in a bid to minimize international trade disruptions and contain the virus. The H5N2 flu discovered in Arkansas last week is the state's first case of a strain that causes massive internal hemorrhaging in poultry, can kill nearly every bird in an infected flock within 48 hours, and is prone to mutate. Such strains are sometimes called "chicken Ebola." In response, Arkansas is working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create new rules for commercial poultry producers and owners of backyard flocks alike, Reuters has learned. The rules will spell out how often poultry within a quarantine zone must test negative for bird flu before the quarantine can be lifted, Brandon Doss, Arkansas’ assistant state veterinarian, said. Until the quarantine is lifted, no poultry within six miles around the farm that was infected with bird flu can move in or out of the area. The rules being revised were previously used to deal with less deadly strains of the bird flu in Arkansas. U.S. authorities are seeking to reassure major buyers of U.S. chicken, such as Mexico, which imposed new import restrictions last week. The export market for companies like Tyson Foods and JBS SA unit Pilgrim's Pride is worth $5.7 billion annually. Already, Arkansas has established a quarantine zone around a farm infected with H5N2 and ordered a 24-hour guard to monitor trucks and people entering and leaving the site and block unauthorized access. "In all likelihood it will be our largest response effort to date," Doss said. Arkansas has 42 commercial operations and at least two dozen backyard flocks to monitor within its quarantine zone. Other states with recent H5N2 cases, including Minnesota and Missouri, have also established quarantine zones around infected farms and are testing nearby flocks in line with Continue Reading

U.S. meat industry is buying more antibiotics for livestock: study

Sales of medically important antibiotics in the United States for use in livestock jumped by 20% between 2009 and 2013, federal regulators reported on Friday, data that is sure to fuel concern that bacteria infecting humans could grow more resistant to the drugs. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration reported that domestic sales and distribution for such drugs approved for use in cattle, chickens, hogs and other food animals increased 3% between 2012 and 2013, according to the annual report. But the current sales picture of such drugs could be different. Some leading U.S. chicken producers, including Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms, have said in the past year they have either reduced or eliminated the use in barns and poultry hatcheries of antibiotics used on humans. "A lot of these announcements came in either late 2013 or in 2014, so we don't really expect to see that reflected in the data we're looking at right now," said Gail Hansen, a senior officer for Pew Charitable Trusts' antibiotic resistance project. "At some point, though, we should be seeing a decrease." Public health advocates, along with some lawmakers and scientists, have criticized the long-standing practice of using antibiotics in livestock, saying it is fueling the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Agribusinesses defend the practice, saying animal drugs are needed to help keep cattle, pigs and chickens healthy, and increase production of meat for U.S. consumers. What specific antibiotics are being fed to which animals, and in what volume and for what reasons, is not clear. So even though the FDA sales data is more than a year old, Hansen said, it will help federal regulators create a baseline for their current research efforts. The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to begin collecting more detailed data on antibiotics used on farms in a potential precursor to reducing use of such drugs in livestock. The agency is awaiting funding approval for the research. Last month, the White House issued a Continue Reading

As bird flu spreads, U.S. lowers poultry export expectations

The U.S. government on Thursday reduced its forecasts for poultry exports by nearly 6% from last month due partly to an accelerating outbreak of bird flu that has triggered wider-than-expected trade restrictions. The steep cuts came as the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed a second commercial flock of turkeys in South Dakota has been infected with the H5N2 flu, which can kill nearly an entire flock of poultry in 48 hours. Birds in eight other states have tested positive for the same lethal strain since the beginning of the year, prompting key overseas buyers such as Mexico and Canada to limit imports of U.S. poultry and eggs from states and counties with infections. The most damaging restrictions to the $5.7 billion U.S. export market have been countrywide import bans imposed by China and South Korea. "We didn't expect China or South Korea really to take as severe, drastic action as they did," said Jim Sumner, president of the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council. Last year, China and South Korea accounted for about $428.5 million in export sales of poultry meat and products, according to USDA data. The USDA, in a monthly supply and demand report, dropped its estimate for turkey exports in 2015 to 720 million lbs from 765 million lbs in March and 804 million last year. Exports for broiler chickens were pegged at 6.68 billion lbs, down from 7.1 billion last month and 7.3 billion last year. Strength in the U.S. dollar, which makes U.S. farm products less attractive to overseas buyers, makes it difficult for exporters to expand business in the face of trade restrictions due to bird flu, the USDA said. The number of U.S. infections in poultry has been climbing as migratory ducks, which are believed to be spreading the virus, are traveling to northern states after spending the winter farther south, experts said. The latest inflected flock of 34,000 turkeys in South Dakota will be culled to prevent Continue Reading