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Op-Ed: Three former Codex chairs say Perdue's plan would undermine Codex

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Editor’s note: Three former Codex Commission chairs are weighing in on the debate over Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s reorganization plan to move the U.S. Codex Office. While the food industry said it hopes shifting Codex duties to the trade office would raise the visibility of the important office, others say it could jeopardize its public health mission. Comments are due Oct. 7 on the proposal.

 

USDA Secretary Perdue proposes to move the U.S Codex Office from USDA’s only public-health agency (the Food Safety and Inspection Service) to a new, trade-only mission area (Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs), a classic case of a solution in search of a problem.

The Codex Alimentarius Commission is co-sponsored by two United Nations agencies, the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization.  The Commission’s 188 member countries develop science-based food safety standards that apply to all food in international trade.  Without a doubt, Codex standards have improved the safety of foods in global commerce – foods that Americans import and consume in huge quantities.

Codex’s responsibility is to protect consumers’ health.  This is done in a way that is no more trade-restrictive than necessary – in other words, ensuring that safe food is traded fairly. Codex was created, in part, because countries sometimes try to block food importation for falsely scientific reasons (so-called non-tariff trade barriers), often to try to protect their own domestic producers from lower-cost imported foods.

No one is suggesting that Codex standards are impeding U.S. food exports.  That’s not to say that barriers to U.S. agricultural products do not exist.  There are numerous examples, some going back decades, of trade blockades that cost U.S. agriculture millions (perhaps billions) of dollars.  But in none of these cases are Codex standards the problem – or even the solution.  In some of the most prominent examples, Codex standards exist, in theory, to allow U.S. products to be freely traded.  The problem lies not with Codex, but with the failure of trade negotiators to resolve these issues.

The United States has long been seen among the global Codex community as a staunch defender of bias-free, independent science as the foundation for Codex standards.  Indeed, it has been for many years the major supporter of sound science in Codex, both financially and by supporting U.S. experts of the highest caliber to serve on the scientific panels that evaluate the complex technical issues that undergird Codex standards.

Politico quotes a USDA spokesman as saying, ”[w]e need to ensure the Codex standards are grounded in science – for both health and commercial reasons. The problem is that other countries, driven by political pressure, are undermining our effort.  USDA needs to raise its game to face this challenge, and that is why our coordination work will be handled by the mission area that was designed to manage all our international coordination activity.”  This statement indicates a failure to recognize the way that Codex works, and the way that it is managed in the United States.  The U.S. Codex Office isn’t the function of USDA or of any one USDA agency.  It works to coordinate positions for all U.S. stakeholders in Codex, including all U.S. government agencies with Codex interests, U.S. agriculture, food, and food-related industries, consumer organizations, trade organizations, scientific and technical societies, and the general public.

Codex is not a wholly owned USDA “international coordination activity,” as the aforementioned spokesman put it.  There is a longstanding U.S. Codex Policy Committee, currently chaired by the USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety (the highest-ranking U.S. food safety official) which includes high-level representatives of the many agencies with Codex interests, including the EPA (pesticides in foods), FDA (animal drug residues, food additives, contaminants, microbial contaminants, food labeling, any many other issues), the Departments of State, Commerce and the U.S. Trade Representative, the Foreign Agricultural Service, and others.  No one is claiming that this coordination mechanism is failing. 

Finally, the optics of moving the U.S. Codex Office from a public-health agency to a purely trade agency are very unfavorable to U.S. credibility as a country that puts a premium on consumer health protection.  In fact, the report by the National Academy of Public Administration, which was commissioned by Congress and recommended the creation of an Under Secretary for Trade, specifically stated that the U.S. Codex Office should not be moved to the new trade mission area because such a move would potentially result in health and safety decisions being unduly influenced by trade promotion priorities.  Most countries in the world seem to recognize this risk.  Of Codex’s 188 member countries, less than a handful house their national Codex offices in clearly trade-specific agencies.

None of us would claim that the U.S. Codex Office’s effectiveness as an advocate for scientific, rules-based U.S. positions could not be enhanced.  But now that this issue is on the table, let’s work to improve the Office, not undermine it.

About the authors: Karen Hulebak, principal of ResolutionStrategy, LLC, was chair of the Codex Alimentarius Commission from 2008-2011, vice chair of Codex from 2005-2008 and chair of the Codex Committee on Food Hygiene from 2001-2008. Among her high-level positions, Hulebak served as chief scientist and assistant administrator for public health science at USDA and director for policy research in FDA’s Office of the Commissioner.

Thomas Billy, president of International Food Safety Consulting, was Codex Commission chair from 1999 to 2003. He served as administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service from 1996-2001 and the first director of the FDA’s Office of Seafood from 1991-1994.

Eddie Kimbrell, who retired from the government in 1988, was Codex Commission chair from 1983-1987.  He was the deputy administrator for commodity services in the Agricultural Marketing Service/Food Safety and Inspection Service from 1977 to 1987. 

 

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