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A Food Fight Has Broken Out Between The USDA And FDA

As Trump tweets, government acts. Welcome to Meanwhile, our recurring look at what federal agencies are up to and how their work affects people’s lives.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration are in a rare public dust-up concerning oversight of an obscure group that helps determine international food standards. The FDA and former USDA officials have expressed concern that the move will put business interests ahead of food safety and could hurt the U.S.’s ability to exert influence abroad.

The fight relates to the Codex Alimentarius Commission, an international consortium of more than 180 countries that, collectively, writes international food safety standards. These standards serve various purposes, including acting as a policy handbook for countries that lack expertise in food safety, and encouraging trade by setting universal rules and helping to settle trade disputes.

The U.S. Codex Office has long answered to the USDA’s food safety division, but in September, agency Secretary Sonny Perdue decided to move the group into the USDA’s trade office. In a statement, the USDA told FiveThirtyEight that the change reflects the group’s role of both establishing science-based food safety standards and encouraging trade. “The bedrock of Codex standards is science-based, for health and safety, as well as commercial reasons. When some countries use the standards as a political weapon, USDA must raise its game in how we organize ourselves. We cannot allow other nations to try to block standards for non-scientific reasons.”

Industry groups, including the International Dairy Foods Association and USA Rice, celebrated the move, saying it could help reduce trade barriers that have little to do with public health. And FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb spoke positively of Perdue’s efforts.

But not everyone at the FDA is on board with the USDA decision. In a letter to the USDA, Stephen Ostroff, deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine at the FDA, publicly objected to Perdue’s proposal. He pointed out that a congressionally appointed commission had advised against changing the oversight of the Codex Group out of concern that it could harm public safety by giving industry groups a voice in decisions that are supposed to be based on science. “Conflating science and trade by putting them in the same mission area will, at a minimum, affect perceptions of scientific integrity and undermine the U.S. trade positions,” the panel said.

Those perceptions can be especially problematic when the U.S. is arguing on behalf of looser regulations and other industry-favored positions. Brian Ronholm, who served as deputy undersecretary of food safety at USDA and oversaw the work of the Codex during much of the Obama administration, pointed to the controversy that erupted over ractopamine as an example. The beta agonist encourages pigs and other animals to put on muscle instead of fat and is used in the U.S. but has not been approved for use in much of the world. The European Union, Russia and China are among the countries concerned that we don’t have enough evidence yet to be sure it’s safe to consume the drug. The U.S., meanwhile, has argued that there’s no evidence that the residual ractopamine found in meat is dangerous to consumers.

After several contentious years, the Codex narrowly decided to create a maximum residue limit for ractopamine, which undercuts countries that have zero-tolerance rules. It was hard enough to win people over to the U.S. position when the argument was coming from respected scientists, Ronholm said. If other countries think the justifications for U.S.-backed food standards are actually spurred by an effort to bolster trade, he worries the U.S. will lose its already tenuous influence.

The move would also put Ted McKinney, a former corporate officer for the pharmaceutical company that makes ractopamine, in charge of the U.S. Codex Group, at least temporarily. . Having an ex-pharmaceutical industry insider in charge could be seen as a conflict of interest when the U.S. weighs in on these topics.

And the broader conflict between trade and public health is cause for concern regardless of whether it actually changes the outcome. Most decisions made by the international Codex consortium are determined by consensus (though that wasn’t the case with ractopamine), so Ronholm isn’t sure that there will be an immediate or obvious impact to health as a result of the move. But he does think it will hurt the U.S.’s reputation abroad and weaken its voice in the negotiation process in the long term.

Anna Maria Barry-Jester is a senior reporter at Kaiser Health News and California Healthline, and formerly a reporter for FiveThirtyEight.