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Top Food Safety Stories of 2010: No. 2

The number 2 food safety story of the year concerned USDA’s regulatory bottleneck:

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Abe Lincoln saw the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) created with his signature in 1862 as “the people’s department” with no need for its executive officer to be in the President’s cabinet.

The new department would operate like the Agricultural Division of the Patent Office that preceded it, without a role in politics or policy.  

In the words of the law creating it, USDA would “acquire and to diffuse among the people of the United States useful information on subjects connected with agriculture in the most general and comprehensive sense of that word, and to procure, propagate, and distribute among the people new and valuable seeds and plants.”

Lincoln’s USDA–which did not do food safety–lasted about 27 years before the USDA Commissioner was elevated to be the Secretary of Agriculture and became a cabinet member.  Today,121 years later, the 30th Secretary of Agriculture is Tom Vilsack and his USDA does just about everything.

Vilsack’s duties now extend so far beyond handing out “useful information” and “new and valuable seeds and plants” that it is difficult for most people to get their heads around everything he oversees.  America is not the agrarian state that it was when Lincoln created USDA, but that has not stopped Congress from piling ever more responsibilities onto the Secretary of Agriculture.

Early on, that included the Bureau of Animal Industry, an attempt to prevent diseased animals from getting into the food supply.  It was the predecessor to the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).  Foreign restrictions on U.S. food exports later led to the 1890 Food Inspection Act.

Then Upton Sinclair’s 1905 book, “The Jungle,” resulted in the Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act a year later.  USDA’s Bureau of Chemistry evolved into the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

More was added to USDA during the New Deal and Great Society years, all of which makes the Ag Secretary one of the federal government’s major policy makers.   And what’s on Vilsack’s agenda is the second biggest food safety story of 2010.   Here are some examples:

  • The Child Nutrition Act, which gives the Secretary of Agriculture the power to set nutritional standards for the nation’s school children.  Vilsack has until late 2011 to make that decision.

  • The 2008 Farm Bill gives the Secretary of Agriculture, through FSIS, the power to regulate and inspect catfish just as it now does beef, pork, and poultry.  Vilsack has not yet made that happen.

  • The Secretary of Agriculture, through FSIS, has the power to say what is an adulterant in meat.  FSIS was petitioned more than a year ago to name six non-O157:H7 toxic strains of E. coli as adulterants, but has not yet acted.  

  • Proposed changes to the way USDA regulates beef and hog markets under the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyard Administration (GIPSA) have already ignited a war of sorts in cattle and hog country.   Vilsack will have to decide in 2011 just what changes are going to be imposed, and there are ramifications for both food safety and the humane treatment of animals.

  • Before Christmas, USDA did issue a final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for genetically modified (GM) alfalfa, but the popular Roundup Ready sugar beats might be plowed under all because the Secretary has not gotten a process down that can withstand a court challenge.  Vilsack has to decide if he wants to run the GM process or let a federal judge do it.

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