Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue is making a peculiar argument for transferring the U.S. Codex Office from food safety to trade.

Perdue is claiming the move will better ensure that the international standards are “grounded in science,” which is the peculiar part. The U.S. Codex Office has long reported to the USDA undersecretary for food safety, a post traditionally filled by a medical doctor or other top scientist.

President Donald J. Trump has not yet nominated a new USDA undersecretary for food safety, the highest food safety post in the U.S. government. The office was also vacant for the last three years of the previous administration.

Moving U.S. Codex to the jurisdiction of the new under secretary of Trade and Foreign Agriculture Affairs (TFAA) means the food standards office will report to Ted McKinney. His nomination is awaiting U.S. Senate confirmation.

When Vice President Mike Pence was Indiana governor, he named McKinney as the state’s agriculture director in 2014. McKinney, who received a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics in 1981, previously was director of global corporate affairs for Elanco Animal Health, a subsidiary of Eli Lilly and Company.

Both proponents and opponents of Perdue’s idea to transfer Codex to the new trade sub-agency are lining up.

Most food and agricultural organizations support the move. The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) says it is looking forward to McKinney’s “vital leadership to advocate for science-based standards in Codex.” GMA is one of 43 organizations signing on to a letter to Perdue supporting moving Codex to trade.

Meanwhile, the consumer-oriented Safe Food Coalition wrote to Perdue asking him to reverse his decision. The coalition cites opposition to the reorganization by several top former federal food safety officials.

The Codex Alimentarius is a collection of world food safety standards that have adopted by the Rome-based Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex). The United States has one vote in the international body of 188 members.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) jointly fund Codex at the international level.

USDA’s Codex Office has had responsibility for collecting input from throughout the federal government ahead of international decisions on food standards. It also does outreach to the public.

Richard Raymond

“Public health at the USDA is centered in FSIS (Food Safety and Inspection Service), and that is where the handful of individuals who work full-time on Codex issues are currently located,” explains Richard Raymond, a medical doctor who served as under secretary for food safety during the George H. Bush Administration.

The undersecretary for food safety at the USDA chairs the U.S. Codex Policy Committee, a group of high-ranking individuals from the EPA, U.S. Trade Office, FDA, Commerce, State, and others, making that person the highest ranking food safety official in the U.S. government.

“An FSIS employee, Karen Hulebak, was even elected as the chair of the CAC (the 188-member Commission)  while I was in D.C., a real feather in the USDA’s Codex Office’s cap and an example of how much respect was given to the United States and FSIS, on an international food safety and public health level,” Raymond added.

Both Mike Taylor, left, and Brian Ronholm say moving Codex under the jurisdiction of trade officials will be bad for food safety.

Michael Taylor, was acting under secretary for food safety during the Clinton Administration, and later the deputy FDA Commissioner for Food during the Obama Administration. Taylor and Brian Ronholm, who was deputy under secretary for food safety under Obama, also see the transfer of Codex as a bad move.

Ronholm says it will make it harder for the United States to make a credible case in the international body and its various forums.  Taylor said the “unexpected move threatens the scientific credibility of the United States in Codex proceedings…” Taylor also said the transfer would hurt the Codex mission to promote safe food and facilitate trade in safe food.

Also, according to the Safe Food Coalition, the National Academy of Public Administration has concluded moving Codex to trade is not in the public interest. The academy found the possibility of health and safety decisions being influenced by export promotors would be too high.

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