Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Robert Califf is due to announce this week what steps he plans to take to reform and tighten leadership of the agency’s food programs.

Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, the Senate Agriculture Committee will resume its hearings on the next farm bill with a focus this week on titles covering specialty crop assistance, trade programs and international food aid.  

FDA, which regulates 80% of the U.S. food supply, is expected Tuesday afternoon to release Califf’s reform plan. Califf has said the plan would be informed by a report released in December by an outside advisory group, the Reagan-Udall Foundation.  

The report found a lack of clearly defined leadership has hampered FDA’s work in food and nutrition, even as concerns over those issues have received ever-increasing attention, including last year’s infant formula crisis.

The report stopped short of endorsing the idea, put forward by a coalition of industry groups and consumer advocates, of creating an office of deputy commissioner for foods to unify leadership of FDA's food and animal feed programs.

There are some signs Califf won’t go as far as industry groups and consumer advocates want. Frank Yiannas, FDA’s top food safety official, who backs the idea of an empowered deputy commissioner and was considered by some FDA critics as an ideal choice for the job, announced last week that he was instead leaving the agency.

“We’re gearing up for something short of what we all believe is necessary,” said Mitzi Baum, CEO of the consumer advocacy group Stop Foodborne Illness. Her assessment is based on part on recent conversations groups have had with Califf, she said.

“We have specific expectations of the unification of the human and animal foods program, and establishing the empowered deputy commissioner position,” Baum said. “We also have expectations that the food program will be more prominent.”

Roberta Wagner, a 28-year veteran of the FDA who is now vice president for regulatory and technical affairs for the Consumer Brands Association, said Califf needs to find someone outside the agency to take over the agency’s food programs.

“They can't just appoint somebody and not give them line authority” over all of FDA’s food-related offices, she said, noting Yiannas’ criticism of the agency in a letter to Califf. “He had no line authority over any of those major components of the foods program.”

Wednesday’s Senate Agriculture Committee hearing will feature Alexis Taylor, USDA’s undersecretary for trade and foreign agricultural affairs, along with Jenny Lester Moffitt, the undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, and Sarah Charles, assistant to the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance. 

Additional hearings will be held Feb. 9 on commodity programs, crop insurance and credit; Feb. 16 on domestic nutrition assistance programs; and March 1 on conservation and forestry. 

The committee previously held a hearing in November on the rural development title and one in December on research programs.

Corn growers draw attention to Mexico biotech case

The National Corn Growers Association is hosting a meeting Tuesday on Capitol Hill to spread alarm over the fact that a Mexican decree to ban biotech corn is only a year away from implementation.

House Ways and Means Committee member Adrian Smith, R-Neb., NCGA President Tom Haag and USDA Trade Counsel Jason Hafemeister are scheduled to speak at the event, which is being called Maize, Mexico and Margaritas.

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative recently joined Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in asserting that Mexico’s proposed restrictions would break its commitments under the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, despite Mexican proposals to soften the rules.

Deadline Tuesday for Colorado River plan

The Bureau of Reclamation has given seven states until Tuesday to announce an agreement for how to reduce their usage of Colorado River water by 2 and 4 million acre-feet of water this year. If they don’t reach a deal, the agency has threatened to “act unilaterally” to protect the river system.

The agency had previously set a deadline of last Aug. 15. Arizona and Nevada water officials put forward a proposal for 2 million acre-feet of reductions between the lower basin states and Mexico, but their offer required California to take large cuts. California negotiators offered a reduction of 400,000 acre-feet, which Arizona rejected. 

Thanks to $4 billion in drought-related funding from the Inflation Reduction Act, the Bureau of Reclamation may have the bargaining chips to broker a deal between the states this time.  

Exiting deputy secretary leads Equity Commission

Deputy Agriculture Secretary Jewel Bronaugh, who last week announced her intention to resign her position, will co-chair the fourth round of meetings this week of USDA's Equity Commission, which is charged with making recommendations for ending racial and ethnic discrimination in the department's programs.

The commission has been considering some recommendations for reform of the department's county committees.

At its last meetings in September, the panel voted to recommend in an interim report to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack that USDA “conduct an analysis and study regarding the termination of the county committee system and design a more equitable alternative for ALL farmers.” Another tentative recommendation called for appointing a “minority VOTING member in areas of high proportion of minority farmers without representation.”

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This week, the commission will take oral comments as well as review written comments that have been submitted to the panel. The meetings will take place Tuesday and Thursday.

Here is a list of agriculture- or rural-related events scheduled for this week in Washington and elsewhere (all times EDT):

Monday, Jan. 30

National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition winter meeting, through Wednesday, Kellogg Conference Hotel. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack scheduled to speak.

Tuesday, Jan. 31

Bureau of Reclamation deadline for Colorado River states to agree to water usage reductions.

10 a.m. — USDA Equity Commission meeting.

1 p.m. — Bipartisan Policy Center webinar, “Making Food and Nutrition Security a SNAP.”

Wednesday, Feb. 1

Cattle Industry Convention and NCBA Trade Show, New Orleans.

10 a.m. — House Oversight and Government Reform hearing, “Federal Pandemic Spending: A Prescription for Waste, Fraud and Abuse”

10 a.m. — Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on the trade and horticulture titles of the farm bill, 328A Russell.

Thursday, Feb. 2

10 a.m. — Equity Commission meeting.

10 a.m. — Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on the Energy Department’s implementation of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, 366 Dirksen.

Friday, Feb. 3

U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization releases monthly Food Price Index.

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