In what critics are describing as a move to prioritize exports over public health, the Trump administration is quietly planning to transfer work on international food safety standards from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) health arm to its brand new trade arm, which is supervised by former animal-drug industry executive Ted McKinney.
"There has been no dialogue on this proposal with the broad food safety community and no explanation from USDA of the problem the proposed reorganization solves."
—Michael Taylor, former FDA officialPolitico's Helena Bottemiller Evich first reported the "little-noticed" plan on Monday. Much of the concern "involves the USDA's staff that manages the U.S.' participation in the Codex Alimentarius Commission, a little-known but powerful standards-setting panel that sits under the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization and is crucial for resolving trade disputes under the WTO," Bottemiller Evich notes.
The Codex Commission is currently debating whether to impose residue limits on the controversial drug zilpaterol, marketed as "beef-improvement technology" that is primarily used to promote growth in cattle.
Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at Consumers Union, told Politico that the Trump administration's decision to place McKinney—former global corporate affairs director of the animal pharmaceutical giant Elanco—in charge of what is often called "the food code" raises serious questions about "whether the U.S. will put even more pressure to make sure zilpaterol gets through."
The European Union, China, and other nations have insisted that zilpaterol—as well as ractopamine, a drug that promotes leanness and muscle growth in animals—is not safe for human or animal consumption and should not be used in food production. The U.S. approved the drug despite these concerns.
While representatives of the food industry were quick to praise the Trump administration's decision to place the Codex office under the watch of a former corporate executive, Michael Taylor, former deputy commissioner for foods at the Food and Drug Administration under former President Barack Obama, argued that the move had been undertaken with virtually no debate or discussion and that it "threatens the scientific credibility of the United States in Codex proceedings."
"There has been no dialogue on this proposal with the broad food safety community and no explanation from USDA of the problem the proposed reorganization solves," Taylor said.
The Trump administration's decision, Taylor concluded, could ultimately lower food safety standards, which would lead to "significant negative consequences in Africa and other developing regions."