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NOAA, USTR, food safety reorganization plans draw concern

Consumer and farm groups continue to expressed concerns about a reorganization that would move the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to the Interior Department, move the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative into a new agency that would replace the Commerce Department, and possibly consolidate the food safety agencies in the future.

Office of Management and Budget Acting Director Jeff Zients said moving the National Oceanic and Fisheries Administration from Commerce to Interior would make sense because it would bring the regulation of all fish under one agency. Obama has often noted that it makes no sense for different types of salmon to be regulated in different agencies.

Food & Water Watch said it was not in favor of the NOAA move.

“We are deeply concerned about President Obama’s proposal to move the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to the Department of the Interior, the same department that brought us BP’s Deepwater Horizon,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch.

“While the mission of NOAA is not consistent with the mission of the Department of Commerce where it currently resides, moving it to the Department of Interior will fail to eliminate any conflicts arising from dueling mandates,” Hauter said.

“This plan to slash the government fails to eliminate these conflicts and will do nothing to promote a better functioning executive branch,” she said. “Instead of moving NOAA from one department to another, it should be made an independent agency, as was suggested by the 2003 Pew Oceans Commission and its chairman, Leon Panetta. And its mandate should be protecting the oceans, not protecting business interests.

The National Milk Producers Federation, the U.S. Dairy Export Council, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the U.S. Grains Council also questioned the administration’s proposal to move the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative into a new agency that would include the Commerce Department’s trade functions, the Trade and Development Agency, the Small Business Administration, the Export-Import Bank, and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation.

National Milk and USDEC said that they were concerned that the move “could detrimentally affect U.S. ability to effectively negotiate and enforce trade agreements.”

Tom Suber
Tom Suber, U.S. Dairy Export Council
“USTR has long been a model of a highly efficient operation,” USDEC President Tom Suber said, “staffed by extremely hard-working individuals and on a scale that is small enough to ensure a high level of accessibility to a wide variety of voices, ranging from the largest U.S. companies to comparatively smaller agricultural organizations, such as USDEC, to small businesses themselves.

“It represents our government at its best and performs a vital role for our members who are focused on growing U.S. dairy exports,” Suber said. “Because of this, we would not support its inclusion in a larger department out of concern for the negative impact this would almost certainly have on USTR’s nimbleness and capacity to maintain its high degree of openness.”

Zients said the food safety agencies would also be candidates for consolidation.

When asked about food safety at last Friday's press conference, Zients said, "Areas like food safety and other areas of fragmentation and duplication and inefficiency across government would be addressed in subsequent, specific proposals, each of which would save money and reduce the size of government."

Some consumer advocates have said they fear a reorganization of food safety agencies would mean shifting money from the Food Safety and Inspection Service, which is in charge of meat, to the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates most other foods, rather than the creation of an independent food safety agency with proper resources to inspect all food.

"Consumer advocates support creation of a single independent food safety agency as proposed by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.," said Carol Tucker Foreman, a senior fellow at the Consumer Federation of America.

"Since Congress separated FSIS from USDA"s marketing and promotion functions and created the undersectretary for food safety, meat and poultry inspection has become an effective public health program, well managed and adequately funded," Foreman said.

"People who want to move FSIS to FDA are mostly looking to spend less on food safety by combining the budgets," she added. "Historically FDA has given food safety short shrift. Now the agency is totally consumed with implementation of the massive new food safety law. Telling FDA to juggle FSMA and meat and poultry inspection is a good way to assure food safety balls end up being dropped. The goal is to prevent foodborne illness, not handicap the food safety agencies."

Another consumer group also said food safety has to be the top concern.

“We strongly urge against consolidating food safety functions of different government departments until much more progress is made to improve basic food safety protections," Food & Water Watch said.

National Milk and USDEC also questioned the consolidation of the food safety agencies, noting that the administration “did not reference what impact such a food safety consolidation might have on the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, which currently plays a key official role as a proxy for FDA on many export-related issues, given the lack of FDA mandate to address export matters.”

“The fact that FDA is not charged with a responsibility for supporting U.S. food exports has in the past created unnecessary hurdles to resolving U.S. dairy export challenges, given FDA’s oversight of dairy products,” the groups said. “NMPF and USDEC support efforts to rationalize FDA’s role with respect to exported products in order to most effectively make use of government oversight responsibilities.”