In a brief notice published in the Federal Register in September, innocuously titled “Improving Customer Service,” USDA proposed moving the Codex Alimentarius (“Food Code”) program from FSIS into the Undersecretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs. USDA’s Codex office helps formulate U.S. policy at the Codex Alimentarius Commission, part of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization. The 180-nation commission formulates international standards for food labeling, additives, pesticide residues, procedures for assessing food safety, as well as governmental import and export inspection and certification systems for foods.
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The proposed USDA reorganization caught many off guard. “FDA strongly believes that moving Codex to the oversight of a trade promoting, non-science organization could undermine the credibility of U.S. Codex as a science-based enterprise,” wrote Stephen Ostroff, MD, deputy FDA commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, in comments that FDA took the unusual step of making public.
Such a transfer “would build a perception that the United States places a stronger priority on advancing trade over public health,” Dr. Ostroff said. “This perception would be damaging to U.S. credibility, and FDA is highly concerned that this would compromise the effectiveness of U.S. delegates who participate in Codex, a majority of whom are from FDA.”
Mike Taylor, Dr. Ostroff’s predecessor under the Obama administration, urged Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to “withdraw and reconsider” the proposed transfer.
“There has been no dialog on this proposal with the broad food safety community and no explanation from USDA of the problem the proposed reorganization solves,” Taylor wrote. “The credibility and effectiveness of Codex and its mission are too important to jeopardize through hasty action to fundamentally alter the program’s management.”
The outpouring of criticism caught the administration’s attention. In late October, Perdue notified Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS), that he was staying the planned Codex transfer pending “further discussion,” the senator’s communications director Sarah Little confirmed. But in a Nov. 14, 2017, agency memorandum, Perdue announced the transfer had occurred.
The U.S. now joins five other nations—Congo, Guinea, Lesotho, Madagascar, and Samoa—in having Codex oversight residing within their government’s trade promotion agency.