Sonny Perdue

Critics are continuing to noodle Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue’s plan to reorganize his large department, finding things they don’t like about it. Perdue’s desire to move U.S. involvement in world food standards to USDA’s trade office, taking it away from food safety, was the first change to stir controversy.

Stephen Ostroff, the Food and Drug Administration deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, is on the record saying the U.S. will lose credibility on the world stage by joining only Congo, Guinea, Lesotho, Madagascar and Samoa in having its Codex food standards oversight residing within a trade agency.

Ostroff says the National Academy of Public Administration (the Academy) conducted a 7-month study of the U.S. Codex office, including more than 140 interviews of stakeholders, congressional staff, department officials and former U.S. agriculture secretaries.

“Putting the U.S. Codex Office in the trade promotion mission area will increase the likelihood that health and safety regulatory decisions would be unduly influenced by trade promotion priorities, rather than protecting human, animal, and plant safety,” according to the Academy recommendation.

Ostroff’s predecessor, Mike Taylor, and USDA’s former Under Secretary for Food Safety Richard Raymond, and former Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety Brian Ronholm also warned against moving U.S. Codex functions to trade.

“The strength of the U.S. Codex efforts rests on its scientific expertise,” Ostroff added. “For example, U.S. Codex delegates have been successful in helping to establish standards that are consistent with U.S. standards in several areas, such as arsenic in rice, the Code of Hygienic Practice for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables, and specifications for identity and purity of food additives.”

Taylor, who has led food safety at both USDA and FDA, says Perdue should “withdraw and reconsider” the Codex transfer. “The credibility and effectiveness of Codex and its mission are too important to jeopardize through hasty action to fundamentally alter the program’s management,” Taylor added.

Perdue’s structure for running USDA requires nominations and approvals for a dozen top agency officials, a process that is going painfully slow.

The official public comment period on his reorganization plan ran on schedule, ending last week.

Bill Bullard

The Perdue reorganization also consolidates the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) with the Agriculture Marketing Service. (AMS).

Bill Bullard, CEO at the Billings, MT-based Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America or R-CALF, wants Perdue to use GIPSA to combat concentration in the meatpacking business. He says the secretary’s first obligation should be to strengthen the family farm.

Bullard says “GIPSA should not be demoted by folding it into AMS where it will be removed from direct oversight of the appointed Deputy and Under Secretaries.” R-CALF, with members in 43 states, wants GIPSA “to promote fair business practices and competitive markets, foster fair competition and guard against deceptive practices.”

Another change generating comments is moving the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP) into the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS).

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, representing 100,000 registered dietitian nutritionists, there is no overlap between the CNPP and FNS. The CNPP provides scientific and nutrition guidance across the federal government.

The Academy says if the merger goes forward, it wants “some protections” to ensure “our nation’s science-based nutrition policy is not compromised.”

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, left, and his second in command, Stephen Censky.

Almost 10 months ago, Secretary Perdue was nominated but had to wait for U.S. Senate confirmation until Oct. 3 this year for confirmation of his deputy secretary, Stephen Censky, and the new Under Secretary for trade and foreign agriculture affairs.

Top civilian employees are running USDA, waiting for more appointments and more confirmations from a slow-walking Senate. Next up for Senate floor votes on their confirmations are William Northey for Under Secretary for farm and foreign agriculture services; and Gregory Ibach for Under Secretary for marketing and regulatory programs.

Also waiting for Senate action is Steven H. Clovis Jr., for Under Secretary for research, education, and economics; and Stephen Alexander Vaden for general counsel.

The White House and Perdue have not managed to send over an appointment for Under Secretary for Food Safety, which is over the $1 billion Food Safety and Inspection Service and its 10,000 employees. It is from that vacant post that they plan to lift the U.S. Codex office.

Also, there’s been no nominations for chief financial officer, the assistant Secretaries for civil rights, and congressional relations. Nor has anyone been named as Under Secretary for natural resources and the environment; marketing and regulatory programs, and food, nutrition, and consumer services.

The USDA is not the only federal agency with many top posts not yet filled by the Trump Administration. Out of 602 top jobs throughout the federal government, a database maintained by the Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service reports that only 142 or 23.5 percent are filled with a confirmed appointment from the current administration.

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