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Perdue halts Codex move in response to concerns

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After widespread criticism of USDA’s plan to move the U.S. Codex Office from USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to a new, trade-only office (Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs), Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said he would stall the move in a recent letter to lawmakers.

In the Oct. 19 letter to Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Ranking Member Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Perdue said that while many industry stakeholders have provided positive feedback on the Codex move, some other stakeholders have expressed concerns.

Industry has also raised questions about another part of the USDA reorganization – the movement of Warehouse Act functions into the new fair trade practice program area that was announced as part of the merging of the Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyards Administration into the Agricultural Marketing Service, the letter stated.

“We believe that these two areas merit further discussion given issues raised by stakeholders, and USDA will continue to examine those issues before moving forward with those two pieces of the realignment,” Perdue said.

Formed in 1963 by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization, Codex develops food safety standards intended to protect public health and ensure fair trade of safe food. The Codex standards are also used by the World Trade Organization to remedy trade disputes and often serve as national standards for developing countries.

The U.S. Codex Office coordinates U.S. engagement and activities on Codex issues with stakeholders and member countries and currently reports to the USDA's top food safety official. The move of the Codex Office from FSIS to USDA’s trade mission area was announced on Sept. 7 as the second stage of Perdue’s USDA reorganization that began in May.

The move, according to Perdue and industry supporters, would elevate the profile of Codex and help improve coordination on trade and international activities within the agency.

But food safety advocates and top-ranking food policy experts are concerned that moving the Codex Office under trade would result in trade interests trumping public health priorities in Codex decisions and could ultimately undermine the leadership role of the United States within the Codex community.

USDA had reportedly failed to include FDA in discussions of the proposed transfer of the Codex Office, and FDA has also urged USDA to retain the Codex Office within FSIS instead of moving it to the new trade office.

Instead of moving the Codex Office, FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine Stephen Ostroff earlier this month recommended that USDA encourage the new under secretary of trade and foreign agricultural affairs (TFAA) and FDA under secretary for food safety (who traditionally chairs the Codex Policy Committee) to work together and find ways to strengthen the Codex Office. 

Food safety expert and former FDA and USDA official Mike Taylor, Karen Hulebak, a former chair and vice-chair of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, and Brian Ronholm, a former undersecretary for food safety at USDA who also chaired the U.S. Codex Policy Steering Committee, are among those opposed to the Codex Office move out of FSIS.

While the announcement that USDA is planning to hold off on the Codex Office move does not necessarily mean the plan is dead in the water, it does mean the agency is taking the feedback it received on the proposal seriously.

USDA “recognized that this issue might not be as straightforward as it initially appeared,” Ronholm, who now serves as senior director of regulatory policy at Arent Fox LLP, told IEG Policy.

Secretary credited for hitting 'pause button'

“The Secretary deserves credit for hitting the pause button until he and his team are able to study this more closely and get a real feel for the issue,” he said.

Moving the Codex Office out of FSIS “would negatively impact our credibility on Codex issues,” Ronholm said. Moving Codex under the trade mission area “would put more emphasis on the trade side of the equation, rather than the scientific food safety function, and as we try and build support for science-based standards within Codex, we would face challenges with that,” he noted.

The U.S. already faces some challenges from other countries with Codex, “that we’re attempting to impose food standards that are not supported by science, so in some respect, the concerns they’re trying to address [have merit,]” Ronholm said.

The U.S. has also received criticisms from the Codex community that “we’re heavily influenced by industry in Codex proceedings, so if the office were to be moved under a trade focused agency, all that does is reinforce that perception, and makes it even more difficult for the U.S. to promote science-based standards. So ultimately the proposal would become self-defeating,” he said.

But Ronholm said the profile of the Codex Office does need to be enhanced.

“More attention and more focus needs to be placed on Codex responsibilities, however I think the best way to do that to [preserve the U.S.] credibility in this space is to have it housed in a public health agency like FSIS,” he said.




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