Farmers and ranchers have to deal with rules and regulations from myriad government agencies, but Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue made it clear Tuesday that he’s making it a priority to bridge the agricultural jurisdictions of the EPA, FDA, Interior Department and other agencies to minimize confusion and regulatory burdens.
“The great thing about our business of agriculture – it’s not very ideological or partisan,” Perdue told a group of about 100 members of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) who were gathered at the White House. “Our constituents, they breathe … and sleep agriculture.”
But it’s not just USDA that those constituents have to deal with to get their crops to market or their livestock to the slaughterhouse.
Whether it’s the Food and Drug Administration’s tightening control over produce safety as it implements the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) or the Interior Department’s policies on cattle grazing, farmers and ranchers can get caught up in complex regulations written by agencies that often don’t understand agriculture the way USDA does.
The lines that separate government agency jurisdictions aren’t always clear or even logical, and often farmers and ranchers are caught in the middle. Just look at the egg sector. If there’s a food safety problem with eggs, it’s not the problem of the USDA inspectors in the plant. They’re only there to grade them for size and shape. It’s the FDA that’s responsible for the wholesomeness of the eggs – so long as the shells are not cracked.
In facilities where the eggs are cracked open to produce the kinds of products you might find on a fast food restaurant’s menu, that falls under USDA’s oversight.
Perdue used the example of a hot dog. The wiener, he said, falls under the purview of USDA. But put it in a bun, and then it’s FDA’s responsibility.
But FDA’s responsibilities are expanding significantly under FSMA and farmers are growing increasingly concerned about agency officials tromping through fields of lettuce and melons.
“He fully appreciates that that’s not FDA’s core business, going on farms,” Perdue said about FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb.
Those are some of the driving factors behind a formal agreement signed at the White House Tuesday by Perdue and Gottlieb.
“Secretary Perdue and I share a deep commitment to further strengthening our nation’s food safety system in the most effective and transparent way,” Gottlieb said. “Over the last several months, the Secretary and I have worked closely and identified several areas where we can strengthen our collaboration to make our processes more efficient, predictable, and potentially lower cost to industry; while also strengthening our efforts to ensure food safety. This agreement not only formalizes this ongoing coordination, but presents a great opportunity to expand those efforts through better integration and increased clarity to the agriculture and food processing sectors.”
It’s not just FDA that Perdue and the USDA are strengthening ties between. If you happened to be camped out on the parking apron of USDA headquarters over the past several weeks, you probably would have seen the likes of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke being dropped off in black SUVs to meet with Perdue in his second-floor office.
Interagency red tape was the topic of several questions posed to Perdue by NASDA members Tuesday. One asked why some farmers have to fill out similar conservation forms for the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service and USDA.
“Conservation is conservation,” he said.
Perdue agreed and stressed it was that kind of duplication that he and other agency heads want to eliminate.
“Those are the kinds of things we need to hear,” he said. “You have a willing Cabinet who’s saying, ‘Let’s see how we can sync up these things to make sense.’ Ryan (Zinke) and I are really trying to synchronize many of our efforts.”
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