Sales vs. safety in the USDA’s strategic plan

US Dept of Agriculture buildingThe FDA is taking a lot of heat for food safety problems in recent days, but the USDA is not without its problems. Perhaps the most fundamental issue with USDA is a built-in conflict of interest: the department’s mission includes both ensuring the safety of meat, poultry and eggs and increasing domestic and international sales of these products.

As an illustration of this conflict, let’s look at the USDA Strategic Plan for 2005-2010. It contains the following Vision Statement and Strategic Goals:

Vision Statement: To be a dynamic organization that is able to enhance agricultural trade, improve farm economies and quality of life in rural America, protect the Nation’s food supply, improve the Nation’s nutrition, and protect and enhance the Nation’s natural resource base and environment.

  • Strategic Goal 1: Enhance International Competitiveness of American Agriculture
  • Strategic Goal 2: Enhance the Competitiveness and Sustainability of Rural Farm Economics
  • Strategic Goal 3: Support Increased Economic Opportunities and Improved Quality of Life in Rural America
  • Strategic Goal 4: Enhance Protection and Safety of the Nation’s Agriculture and Food Supply
  • Strategic Goal 5: Improve the Nation’s Health and Nutrition
  • Strategic Goal 6: Protect and Enhance the Nation’s Natural Resource Base and Environment

Note that neither the Vision Statement nor the Strategic Goals place food safety as the highest priority. Instead, the top items are about money. To be sure, there is no indication in the plan that the goals are prioritized, but I doubt that these goals were ordered randomly because the plan starts with a message from the Secretary of Agriculture. It seems likely that the Secretary or one of his top aides approved the decision to put food safety a few ticks down the list. Without a safe food system, however, financial goals can be much harder to achieve. For example, disruptions in beef exports to Japan and South Korea because of their concerns about mad cow disease have reduced export opportunities for the U.S. beef industry. The E. coli in spinach crisis caused tremendous financial losses all across the agricultural supply chain.

Some in Congress are trying to change the system. Sen. Durbin (D-IL) and Rep. DeLauro (D-CT) have submitted legislation that will reorganize the food safety bureaucracy by creating a Food Safety Administration. This agency will have one goal: safe food. The Safe Food Act of 2007 is sponsored in the House by Rep. DeLauro and is H.R. 1148; the Senate bill is S.654, sponsored by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL). More details about the bill are in Rep. DeLauro’s press release. I’ll write more about the proposal in a future post.

Photo of the U.S. Department of Agriculture building in Washington, D.C. from the National Agricultural Library, via Wikipedia

One Responseto “Sales vs. safety in the USDA’s strategic plan”

  1. Yes, yes, yes!
    At the FDA food safety is overshadowed by their drug counterparts and at the USDA there are conflicting goals and they’re overshadowed by just about everything. You can’t always say that the $ goals win, but it’s at least a compromise. I’d rather not compromise with food safety. Things need shaken up anyway, so that the safety regulators and inspectors grow a pair and realize that they are there to REGULATE, not to cajole or plead with industries to get what they need (see: inspectors that left the peanut plant alone when ConAgra refused to hand over requested docs).