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Food safety reprieve: Ag secretary pauses plan to move Codex

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, for the moment, has backed off his controversial plan to transfer the U.S. Codex Office, which works on international food standards, from USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service to a new trade office in the department.

In a letter to Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-KS, Perdue said there are two planned changes at USDA that “merit further discussion” because of issues raised by critics. Those two changes are moving Codex away from the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the proposed merger of the Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS) with the Grain Inspection, Packers & Stockyards Administration (GIPSA).

With the office of the Under Secretary for Food Safety still vacant after after more than 44 months, a USDA reorganization plan put forward in May by Perdue proposed turning the U.S. Codex operation over to a the recently created Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs (TFAA) office. Among the stakeholders who’ve strenuously objected to the proposed reorganization is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which does most of the USA’s heavy lifting at the 188-member international Codex Alimentarius Commission.

The USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety, or the deputy, has traditionally chaired the U.S. Codex efforts and food safety staff as well as coordinating the U.S. government’s involvement in setting world food standards.

In a five-page letter objecting to Perdue’s plan to turn Codex into a trade unit, FDA made it clear just how much it has dedicated to worldwide food safety standards.

As the the government’s biggest food safety agency, the FDA’s comments seem to be carrying some weight with Perdue. The FDA letter said, in part:

  • FDA provides the vast majority of delegates and/or alternate delegates for the Codex committees/task forces (i.e., 18 of 25) and provides the chair for one committee.
  • In Codex committees and activities, FDA scientists and technical experts work in partnership with scientists and technical experts from FSIS; USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service; USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers & Stockyards Administration; and the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • FDA provides a significant proportion of the U.S. contribution to the joint FAO/WHO scientific advice/risk assessment bodies that provide scientific advice to Codex. In addition, FDA and FSIS scientists participate as experts in these bodies.
  • FDA scientists and technical experts participate in outreach activities to increase understanding of the scientific basis for Codex standards amongst developing nations. The Codex outreach activities serve to develop a common understanding of the role of science, which is the foundation of consensus building in standards setting.

The Codex Alimentarius Commission is a joint effort of  the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO).  The World Trade Organization (WTO) does rely upon Codex standards in setting trade rules.

In putting these parts of his reorganization on hold, Perdue is likely disappointing mainline food and agriculture organizations that want Codex folded into trade. The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) is hosting a meeting today of the “Food Industry Codex Coalition” that is also providing a call-in line for those who cannot make the meeting in person.

One example of the type of support Perdue is getting for his plan was provided to  Food Safety News by the International Dairy Foods Association’s John T. Allan, III, who is the organization’s vice president of regulatory affairs and international standards.

Allan says IDFA supports moving Codex “from within the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service to within the purview of the newly created Under Secretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs (TFAA)” because of its role as the “interagency coordinator for Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) measures and other non-tariff trade barriers impacting U.S. food and agricultural exports.”

Perdue has not said how long he’ll keep his May reorganization plan on hold or how he might go about making changes to it. The part about the AMS-GIPSA merger is opposed by independent cattle producers and some contract poultry operators.

Among the people who are on record as being opposed to the move of the Codex operation to the new trade unit are:

  • Brian Ronholm, former deputy under secretary of food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2011-2017;
  • Michael Taylor, acting under secretary for food safety during the Clinton Administration and deputy FDA commissioner for food during the Obama Administration; and
  • Dr. Richard Raymond, former Undersecretary for Food Safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2005-2008.

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