The FDA & USDA Animal Oversight Brawl

A new memorandum of understanding (MOU) directs the FDA to hand over regulatory oversight of food animal biotechnology to the USDA – and they aren’t loosening their grip.

The MOU, signed by Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue and HHS Assistant Secretary for Health Brett Giroir, leaves the FDA with control over just gene-edited animals unrelated to agriculture.

The industry-backed move has groups such as the National Pork Producers Council cheering for faster approvals through the USDA. While managing crop biotechnology, the USDA has opened the door to dozens of genetically-engineered [GE] plant varieties while the FDA has only green-lighted two animal equivalents.

But not everyone is on board with the swap.

After the MOU was announced, FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn took to Twitter to express his….uhm, disagreement.

Rumors are swirling about Hahn’s refusals to sign the MOU and judicial challenges are expected.

Where this goes: It’s a game of wait-and-see with the new administration and incoming USDA head Tom Vilsak, but bets are on that it’ll be a brawl.

“I think that the FDA will keep fighting USDA on this,” said Jaydee Hanson, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety.

+ Side note: In December, GalSafe pigs joined Aquabounty’s GE salmon as the second GE animal to ever be approved by the FDA. GalSafe pigs don’t contain alpha-gal sugars, allowing red-meat lovers with Alpha-Gal Syndrome to finally put a fork in pork.

USDA’s Cross-Country Move Conundrum

It was controversial then. It is controversial now.

In 2019, you likely remember when two arms of the USDA, the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), were moved out of Washington, D.C. to Kansas City. The move was largely due to the Trump administration’s policy focuses.

How’d it go? Not great.

The move caused mass resignations, resulting in a loss of staff expertise plus lots of unfinished research projects.

And morale? Well, it’s like playing limbo – it keeps getting lower.

  • The Counter reports ERS has funding for 329 positions. Vacancies topped 200 in early 2020.
  • In mid-August a spokesperson reported 172 staffers, only 52% of a complete department.


Those who remain at the agency say the move “affects their research every day.”

What’s ahead: Biden’s ag agenda has one hot topic – climate change – that ERS & NIFA are intimately familiar with. So he and his Ag Secretary nominee, Tom Vilsack, have some deciding to do. Do they move the teams back to D.C.? Does Kansas City remain home? Will a hybrid approach be the way? Time will tell.

He’s Baaack

In a surprising yet recognizable turn of events, a familiar face will be taking back the reins of the USDA in January.

Reports confirm that President-elect Joe Biden has all but finalized his pick for Secretary of Agriculture to be former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

Amid heavy speculation that the USDA chief gig was between former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and Rep. Marcia Fudge, Vilsack emerged as the apparent safe, comfortable alternative.

+ Worth noting: Ohio’s Fudge was tapped to be Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
The former Iowa Governor served a full eight years under President Obama. He’s since been leading the U.S. Dairy Export Council.

Vilsack will re-enter the role with new dynamics at stake:

  • Pandemic-related relief programs will need to be addressed
  • Trade and market volatility have amped up
  • Technology advances are critical for rural broadband and sustainability efforts

And you can’t make everyone happy. Vilsack’s Iowa roots, current job, and support of corn ethanol have some believing his only allegiance is to big agribusiness. Friends of the Earth was one of several organizations noting they were “deeply disappointed” with the choice.

Zoom out: Vilsack was a safe pick that both Republicans and Democrats can get behind.

Next Farm Bill Hurdles Comin’ in Hot

Only two years into the existing Farm Bill and ag policy circles are getting antsy as they look towards 2023.

As the only industry with a bill passed on its behalf every 4-5 years, the work will begin on the early draft of the next version in 2021.

The big shift? Three of the four leaders of the previous Farm Bill will no longer be in Washington D.C.

Sen. Pat Roberts and Rep. Mike Conway took the retirement route while Rep. Colin Peterson lost his reelection bid. With 85 years of experience between those three evaporating in January, Sen. Debbie Stabenow will be left with new co-leaders to usher the process.

  • It’s worth noting: The U.S. also lost its farm policy guru, Dr. Barry Flinchbaugh, this year. The Kansas State professor passed away last month and had been involved in some capacity with every Farm Bill since 1968.

Stabenow’s first new counterpart, Rep. David Scott of Georgia, was nominated this week to fill the House Ag Committee slot.

But the bigger question may be around what programs or policies will get the ax.

Former USDA Chief of Staff Karla Thieman put it bluntly:

“The other dynamic that will make this next farm bill really difficult, I think, is that we are heading into a period of austerity. People are talking about the deficit and how high it is, and that we need to cut government spending.”