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Perdue’s latest Codex plan continues to raise protests from some former USDA officials

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USDA announced a plan last week to resolve concerns about relocating the U.S. Codex office to the new trade division, but some former USDA officials say it will do nothing to assure public health priorities don’t get lost in the shuffle and may downplay FDA’s role.

In an interview with IEG Policy on Friday (Nov. 17), former FSIS Under Secretary for Food Safety Richard Raymond poked holes in a recent announcement from USDA that after Codex is moved, the FSIS under secretary for food safety will still serve as chair of the Codex Policy Committee, while the under secretary for trade will serve as vice chair for the committee.

Raymond’s concerns come on the heels of a Nov. 14 memo issued by Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, which indicated that despite widespread criticism, the agency is moving forward with plans to move the U.S. Codex Office from the USDA’s FSIS, where it’s currently located to the agency’s newly created trade function.

USDA recently suggested this plan as a way to mitigate concerns that moving Codex away from FSIS would result in subordinating public health issues to trade priorities.

Raymond, however, points to one problem – the under secretary for food safety position has remained open since Dec. 2013 and the Trump administration has yet to nominate a person for the job.

“The majority of the time there has been no under secretary for food safety, so what good does it do for the Secretary to say: ‘We’ll keep the under secretary for food safety as the chair of the Codex Policy Committee?’” Raymond asked. “Putting the under secretary for trade as the deputy committee chair – what that does right now, is placing the Secretary for Trade as the committee chair because there is no Under Secretary for Food Safety.”

What’s more, USDA’s current Under Secretary for Trade is Ted McKinney, a former corporate officer at Elanco, a leading pharmaceutical company, who has spent years trying to push ractopamine (a growth-promoting drug used in beef and pork production) and rbST (a drug that increases milk production in cows) into world trade, Raymond noted.

The use of ractopamine and rbST have been highly volatile topics in Codex discussions over the years, Raymond noted, and if McKinney steps in as the Codex Policy Committee chair, it would be even harder to convince the worldwide Codex community that the U.S. Codex Office represents interests that are not influenced by industry priorities.

“That tells the world we have an under secretary for trade – the first under secretary for trade appointed; we have no under secretary for food safety and we’ve taken Codex out of food safety and moved it over under trade,” said Raymond, who served in the under secretary position between 2005 and 2009.

“It’s not a trade issue, it’s a food safety issue and it belongs where it was. And many people, including the FDA, have stated that opinion, but Secretary Perdue has chosen to ignore this,” Raymond added. 

The move of Codex was a part of Perdue’s ongoing efforts to reorganize the USDA. The effort, which Perdue began in May, aims to make the agency more efficient and effective and included the creation of the new under secretary for trade and foreign affairs position, which McKinney holds now. Perdue announced plans to move Codex during the second stage of the reorganization and stated the change would help improve coordination on trade and international activities within the agency.

His plan to relocate the agency had been supported by industry, but was widely criticized by food safety advocates, top-ranking food policy experts and even the FDA, all of whom expressed concerns that the move would result in trade interests trumping public health priorities in Codex decisions and could ultimately undermine the U.S. leadership role within the Codex community.

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.

In response to these concerns, Perdue on Oct. 19 sent a letter to Senate lawmakers, stating he is putting the change on hold, so the agency could consider those issues.

And in an Nov. 15 email to stakeholders, Carmen Rottenberg, acting deputy under secretary for food safety, said that while the Codex Office will move over to trade, “to address one of the most prevalent concerns heard during the comment period, the Under Secretary for Food Safety will continue to chair the U.S. Codex Office Policy Committee. The Under Secretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs will be the vice chair.”

FDA’s role in Codex questioned

Raymond, however, believes that this plan has wider implications than the agency has suggested.

In the absence of an under secretary for food safety, it would be the under secretary for trade who coordinates committee meetings, sets the agenda and pushes for consent when consensus is needed, he noted.

 “In the olden days, … the vice chair for the Codex Policy Committee was the head of FDA’s CFSAN [Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition], so FDA had a major role,” Raymond noted. “And all of a sudden, it’s USDA trade running the policy. FDA has been shut out.”

Raymond is not alone in his concerns. Brian Ronholm, who was appointed as deputy under secretary for food safety under the Obama administration and later served as acting under secretary, is another critic of the move who does not feel convinced that USDA’s decision to move Codex is a good idea.

“The biggest threat facing Codex is the attempt to impose non-scientific factors into the Codex decision-making process,” Ronholm told IEG Policy on Friday. “The most effective approach in contesting this threat is ensuring U.S. policy positions are derived from a strong public health foundation.”

That is why moving Codex to USDA’s new trade function “ultimately will be counter-productive and self-defeating because it undercuts our scientific integrity within Codex and thus, our ability to advocate for science-based positions,” Ronholm added.

FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine Stephen Ostroff had raised similar concerns when USDA announced its plans for Codex, but FDA appears to have changed its stance.

“We support Secretary Purdue’s commitment to keeping food safety and science at the forefront of U.S. Codex work, and we look forward to working closely with USDA on these efforts,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said on Friday. “The FDA has been a strong and active player in Codex and will continue providing scientific expertise to ensure that our food supply remains among the safest in the world.”

The statement represents a shift from the position that Ostroff took in the beginning of October, when he penned a five-page letter urging USDA to “reconsider and rescind” the proposed Codex change.

FDA had reportedly not been included in the USDA discussions of the move, and according to Ostroff, the agency had “significant concerns” about relocating the Codex Office from a “science-based food safety mission USDA component” to a “trade promotion USDA component.”

“Placing the U.S. Codex Office under a trade umbrella could undermine our engagement in Codex and would ultimately threaten to erode U.S. trade positions,” Ostroff wrote, noting that the National Academies of Science in 2015 recommended against a potential move of Codex.

Of the more than 180 countries participating in Codex, only five (Congo, Guinea, Lesotho, Madagascar and Samoa) have placed their Codex offices under a trade body, Ostroff noted.

FDA on Friday would not comment on whether officials from the two agencies had discussed plans for the move or whether USDA had responded to the concerns raised by Ostroff.

Industry, in the meantime, sees moving Codex activities to the new trade division as a positive change.

The North American Meat Institute (NAMI) submitted comments on the move on Oct. 6 and said the change would “help elevate Codex engagement, enhance the visibility of the U.S. Codex Office in overall U.S. policymaking, and place a greater emphasis on U.S. strategic engagement with Codex, including the use of Codex objectives to ensure the use of science-based standards in the trading system.”

According to NAMI, realigning Codex with USDA’s trade’s mission would empower the agency “to enhance engagement, expand international outreach, and strengthen relationships with other Codex member delegations to emphasize the importance of science-based standards in trade relationships.”

“Finally, the movement of the U.S. Codex Office will provide an opportunity for current Codex Office staff to serve not only as technical and scientific experts within the Codex Office, but as educators and consultants to those developing trade policy in the Office of the Under Secretary for Trade,” the trade group stated.

This will ensure that U.S. Codex policy remains based into a commitment to advancing science-based standards that enhance food safety worldwide, while helping to enhance U.S. trade, the group wrote.

“Such complementary activities are consistent with Codex’s dual mandate of safe and fair practices in food trade,” the group stated.

The comments were consistent with the position expressed by a coalition of more than 40 industry groups (including NAMI), which in September signed onto a letter applauding Perdue’s decision to move Codex. And the Grocery Manufacturers Association has also expressed strong support for the move.

Hulebak softens opposition to plan

But at least one former critic of the Codex move has expressed hope that the planned Codex transfer may turn out to be positive shift for the agency.

Karen Hulebak, a principal at ResolutionStrategy, LLC, who served as chair of the Codex Alimentarius Commission from 2008-2011, as vice chair of Codex from 2005-2008 and chair of the Codex Committee on Food Hygiene from 2001-2008, had originally criticized USDA for rushing in with plans to move Codex without consulting with FDA and without providing enough time for stakeholder feedback.

She said on Friday that her bigger concern about Codex is not about who or what agency leads the Codex Policy Steering Committee, but about the pressing challenges that stand before Codex and its new leadership.

One major challenge will be to build truly strong, well-coordinated, and sustained commitment to Codex among the US government Codex stakeholder agencies, she noted.

“It's not so much who is in what seat on the Codex Policy Committee, it’s what leadership those people – whoever they are – are providing,” she explained. “The U.S. Codex Office needs a good strategic plan, it needs to build bridges and relationships and that’s something that the leadership needs to do.”

Hulebak, who just attended the Nov. 13-17 session of the Codex Committee on Food Hygiene in Chicago, said she was very encouraged to hear McKinney express a clear commitment to Codex before representatives from dozens of countries who attended.

“He thinks it’s a terrifically important organization and, in his opinion, the priories for Codex and the United States in Codex under his leadership would be science first, science second, science third and trade, somewhere after that,” Hulebak said. “He made a very strong statement.”

According to Hulebak, it would be wrong to assume that having the Codex Office under the leadership of a public health agency is a guarantee for success or that having it under a trade body would necessarily lead to failure.

“Many people feel that the U.S. has lost its leadership position in Codex and that happened while it was under the watch of a public health agency,” she noted. “What it comes down to is fidelity to the Codex mission and real leadership to make sure the U.S. executes on that mission, which is science-based decision-making and ensuring fair trade.”

That all depends on good leadership and it doesn’t matter whether that good leadership comes from trade or a public health agency, Hulebak noted.

“I want this to work,” Hulebak said. “This is going to happen, so let’s focus on making it work. Now that this is on the table, lets focus on making Codex as strong as it can be.”  

 

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