One significant provision in Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s most recent realignment announcement would move the U.S. Codex Office from the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to the newly created Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs (TFAA) office.
While the move may seem inconsequential on the surface, this realignment will undermine the United States’ credibility in the international food policy arena, and represents yet another effort by the Trump Administration to emphasize trade goals at the expense of food safety.
Codex Alimentarius is a United Nations standards-setting body working under the auspices of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) that establishes food standards that protect public health and ensure fair trade of safe food all over the world. Many countries incorporate Codex standards into their laws, which has the effect of upgrading international food safety efforts. Codex standards also establishes predictability for food traders and are used by the World Trade Organization (WTO) in settling trade disputes.
The U.S. Codex Office is comprised of a small, and very effective, staff within FSIS that manages U.S. participation in Codex by engaging other federal agencies and external stakeholders in the development of these international governmental and non-governmental food standards. Historically, the United States has been a strong presence in Codex, providing leadership in maintaining the organization’s adherence to science. Aligning the U.S. Codex Office with trade goals within USDA will have a negative impact on this leadership status.
Within Codex, the U.S. faces challenges from other countries who are attempting to impose views of appropriate food standards that are not supported by science. While the challenges from these other countries have been formidable, the U.S. Codex Office has been able to execute a strategic outreach program that has proven successful in gaining support for U.S. positions worldwide.
The primary factor in the success of these outreach programs is the credibility the U.S. Codex Office has possessed from the public health foundation provided by being housed under FSIS. Whether warranted or not, there exists a perception among many countries that U.S. Codex positions are significantly influenced by industry trying to enhance trade opportunities at the expense of consumer and public health interests; this perception has long complicated Codex proceedings and negotiations for the U.S.
However, the U.S. Codex Office has been able to push back effectively on that narrative by virtue of its emphasis on science, and public health goals supported by its standing within FSIS.
Moving the U.S. Codex Office to the trade office within USDA may seem to make sense on the surface. However, when you factor in the nuance and complexities of Codex negotiations on the world stage, this realignment actually will undermine U.S. credibility on food safety and trade. I hope Secretary Perdue will consider these ramifications and reconsider this particular move.
Note on the author: Brian Ronholm is now in the private sector, but he is a former deputy under secretary of food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. During his time at USDA, Ronholm developed strategic frameworks and engaged in outreach activities to advance FSIS policies and initiatives impacting the meat, poultry, and processed egg industries.
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