The Trump Administration announced its new plan to reorganize government. Obviously, this affects the agencies dealing with agriculture, food, and nutrition issues—USDA, FDA, and FDA’s parent agency, HHS. Here is my translation of the major shifts being proposed:
- Move most of USDA’s nutrition programs—SNAP, WIC, the Child and Adult Care Food Program, and the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program—to HHS.
- Move FDA’s food safety oversight to USDA, putting USDA in charge of all food safety.
- Downsize the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps.
Congress would have to vote on all this so there’s no point in going too deeply into the weeds at this point, but I have just a few comments:
- Putting all food safety oversight in one agency is a good idea, but not if it’s USDA. USDA’s principal purpose to to support agribusiness. Holding agribusiness responsible for food safety puts USDA in conflict of interest.
- Moving SNAP and WIC into HHS (or whatever its new name will be) would make sense if HHS weren’t already overwhelmed by everything else it has to deal with (more than a trillion dollars in spending).
- The proposal still leaves school breakfasts and lunches and commodity programs in USDA, meaning that food assistance programs will still be split between USDA and HHS.
- Downsizing the Commissioned Corps doesn’t make much sense either. Public health needs all the health it can get.
Whatever happens with this is unlikely to happen quickly. USDA will not be happy about losing SNAP’s $80 billion a year or WIC’s $6 billion budget.
Many other agencies are also affected by these proposals. My prediction: Congress will have a lot of trouble coming to agreement on these ideas.
Maybe this is just another attempt to distract us from more pressing matters.
Law Professor Timothy Lytton, an expert on food regulatory policy, has plenty to say about why moving food safety to USDA won’t work (in my paraphrasing):
- Congressional committees are unlikely to support any reorganization that would reduce their power.
- Industry associations are unlikely to support a reorganization that would disrupt their influence with existing agencies.
- The two agencies are different in jurisdiction, powers and expertise; a merger would require a complete overhaul of federal food safety laws and regulations, a task of extraordinary legal and political complexity.
- A merger might create new forms of fragmentation.
- Reorganization is expensive and will take years. The payoff is unclear.
As I’ve explained before, plans for a single food safety agency have been in the works for years, but have encountered many barriers. The Food Safety Modernization Act was meant to be step #1 in a three-step process:
- Pass and implement rules governing FDA’s oversight of pretty much all foods except meat and poultry (this is now done).
- Fix USDA’s food safety rules governing meat and poultry so they are consistent with FDA’s (in the talking stage, hopefully).
- Merge the food safety responsibilities in one agency.
These proposals, alas, ignore step #2. Good luck with that.