Sonny Perdue was sworn in as the 31st U.S. Secretary of Agriculture on April 25, and one of his first agendas after being confirmed concerned efforts to reorganize the Department of Agriculture, although what that means specifically to food safety is still unknown.
Robert Guenther, United Fresh Produce Association’s vice president of public policy, says the organization commends Secretary Perdue for taking on this important task to create more efficient and focused realignment of key program areas within the Department of Agriculture.
“We look forward to working with the department to ensure the department reorganization will provide the fresh fruit and vegetable industry enhanced access and service in areas such as trade promotion, rural development, conservation practices, risk management tools, and other areas that USDA has identified under this reorganization plan,”he says.
In May, Perdue created an undersecretary for trade and foreign agricultural affairs in the USDA, designed to highlight the ever-increasing importance of international trade to American agriculture.
The American Soybean Association, for one, was in large favor of this move and released a statement following Perdue’s announcement.
“The U.S. exports well over half of the soybeans we produce, and agriculture is one of only a handful of business sectors in the country with a positive trade balance—$17 billion last year,” the organization says. “That success abroad leads to success here at home, returning billions to the economy and supporting more than a million jobs. To have USDA recognize the importance of farm trade by creating this position is very encouraging, and we appreciate the administration’s foresight in doing so.”
While many others in the agriculture industry welcomed this announcement and applauded Perdue’s efforts, there is still quite a bit of concern about how he will handle food safety in his new role.
Importance of Food Safety
Perdue has gone on record to say that the USDA will continue to serve in the critical role of ensuring the food put on the table to feed U.S. families meets the strict safety standards established.
“Food security is a key component of national security, because hunger and peace do not long coexist,” he says.
Perdue has shown a mixed record when it comes to food safety in the past. For instance, in 2009 when he was governor of Georgia, he dealt with one of the century’s most deadly foodborne illness outbreaks when 714 people were sickened with Salmonella after eating peanut butter made by Peanut Corporation of America. He launched an investigation into the company’s plant and was somewhat instrumental in the prison sentences eventually handed down to the brothers in charge of the company.
But he also was responsible for slashing Georgia’s food safety budget by 29 percent two years prior, which may have led to the problems in the first place.
Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, is also concerned with Perdue’s food safety record as Governor, as he signed a law that blocked local governments from regulating crop production or animal husbandry. Hauter fears Perdue may lead the charge to cut similar regulations that protect independent farmers, workers, and consumers.
“With Perdue serving as Secretary of Agriculture, we will have to fight to make sure that agribusiness is not allowed to prioritize profits above food safety, farmer livelihoods, worker safety, or the environment,” he says. “Food & Water Watch will work to block any effort to lessen regulation of the meat industry, including any attempts to privatize meat inspection.”
President Trump’s budget is still being ironed out, and rumors persist that food safety could be taking a big hit (analysts say food safety activities could receive $1.3 billion, $83 million less than under the current budget resolution), but Perdue seems to be standing by the President rather than fighting for the cause.
“While the President’s budget fully funds nutrition programs, wildland fire suppression, and food safety, and includes several new initiatives and increases for Rural Development, whatever form the final budget takes, it is my job as Secretary of Agriculture to manage and implement that plan, while still fulfilling the core mission of USDA,” Perdue says.