By: Amanda Nichols, Ocean and Coastal Law Fellow, National Sea Grant Law Center, December 6, 2017

According to an article published by FiveThirtyEight on December 4th, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue is moving forward with agency reorganization measures that will move the USDA’s Codex Alimentarius program from the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to the Office of the Undersecretary for Trade and Agricultural Affairs. The Codex Alimentarius Commission is a consortium consisting of more than 180 countries that writes voluntary, international food safety standards, guidelines and codes of practice that contribute to the safety, quality and fairness of international food trade. Codex standards can cover substances including veterinary drugs, pesticides, food additives and contaminants. The Codex Commission is a joint program under both the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO). The World Trade Organization (WTO) recognizes its standards as international references for the resolution of disputes concerning food safety and consumer protection.

Secretary Perdue’s reorganization is being praised by industry representatives, yet critics are troubled with the move, since it transfers oversight from an agency primarily focused on science to one more concerned with trade. Whereas scientists have previously played an integral role in Codex policymaking under FSIS, the move will greatly diminish their influence moving forward. The FDA, in particular, expressed its concerns in a letter to the USDA where it argued the move would run the risk of “undermin[ing] the scientific credibility of U.S. delegations and U.S. positions at Codex.” It also expressed its strong belief that “moving the Codex to the oversight of a trade promoting, non-science organization could undermine the credibility of the U.S. Codex as a science-based enterprise,” and “would build a perception that the United States places a stronger priority on advancing trade over public health.” A copy of the FDA’s letter can be found here.

The move would also temporarily put Ted McKinney, a former corporate officer for a pharmaceutical company and current Under Secretary of Agriculture for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs, in charge of the U.S. Codex Group. Many see this as a conflict of interest due to McKinney’s former company’s involvement in manufacturing ractopamine—a livestock food additive that has been the topic of Codex controversy in recent years due to its potential food safety concerns.

The reorganization could have critical policy implications by shifting focus from science to trade. For example, the WHO recently recommended limiting the use of antibiotics in livestock, saying it could help reduce the risk of drug-resistant infections in humans. A U.S. policy decision as to this recommendation could have greatly different outcomes depending on whether it was made with a focus on the scientific and human health implications or trade. Only time will tell what this reorganization measure practically means for U.S. food safety and American farmers. Since most decisions made by the international Codex consortium are determined by consensus, there may not be any immediate or obvious impacts as a result of the move. It remains to be seen how the United States’ voice in the Codex negotiation process will fare in the long term as a result of the reorganization.