Practical insights for compliance and ethics professionals and commentary on the intersection of compliance and culture.

Round-up on USDA compliance

This is the fifth in a series of seven posts about regulatory compliance priorities and enforcement trends.  The first post was about the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC).  The second post was about the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).  The third post was about the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC).  Last week’s post was about the Food & Drug Administration (FDA).  Today’s post will be about the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).  Next week’s post, on Thursday January 25, will be about the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  Finally, on Thursday February 1, the post will be about the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the US regulator charged with supervising and enforcing federal laws concerning farming, agriculture, forestry, and food.  The USDA was created in 1862 by an order of President Abraham Lincoln and was subsequently elevated to executive cabinet status by President Grover Cleveland in 1889.  The legislation which sets the regulatory policy and enforcement standards for the USDA is far-reaching and broad, signifying the major role agricultural activities and products have always played in the U.S. economy and many communities.  The mandate of the USDA includes running a variety of departments, including as the Farm Service Agency (formed 1994, responsible for farm conservation and regulation), the Office of Rural Development (formed 1990, responsible for administering programs intended to improve economies and communities in the rural United States),  the Food and Nutrition Service (formed 1969, responsible for running nutrition assistance programs), and the National Resources Conservation Service (formed 1932, responsible for protecting and conserving agricultural lands and other natural resources on private lands), among numerous others.

The broad scope of these agencies and programs gives the USDA a sweeping jurisdiction which touches upon farmers and ranchers, trade and production within the agricultural supply chain, food safety, conservation and protection of natural resources, and issues affecting rural communities, such as nutrition assistance, housing services, and other development-focused activities.  The USDA also collaborates broadly with other regulatory entities, particularly the FDA and the EPA, insofar as their mandates overlap or contain co-dependencies from the federal laws which guide their activities.  While the USDA may have once had great oversight responsibilities for the business activities of farmers and ranchers and the community developments within rural areas, due to this fact that other supervisors share jurisdiction and to change in the domestic markets, the USDA’s focus has shifted   accordingly.  Therefore the majority of the present and upcoming developments on the USDA’s regulatory agenda touch upon food safety, nutrition, and the treatment of animals in farming practices.

  • Food safety research:  The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is the USDA department responsible for overseeing and addressing public health concerns regarding commercial food supply from agricultural sources.  One way in which the FSIS executes this mission is to promote research into food safety and keep up to date with developments in the field in order to ensure that its regulatory agenda keeps apace with advancements due to ongoing scientific research.  The items which the FSIS views as priorities within its strategic plan are important to consider because they give an indication as to the food safety objectives that the USDA finds most essential in executing its enforcement mission.  These areas are preventing foodborne illness, modernizing inspection systems, and improving operational processes.  Therefore it is likely that the USDA will focus on practices in these areas to focus its enforcement and reform agenda:   USDA-FSIS Develops Food Safety Research Priorities 
  • Animal Welfare Act:  The Animal Welfare Act is one of the most important bodies of federal law under the purview of the USDA.  It tasks the USDA with ensuring that animals receive humane care and treatment.  One of the ways in which the USDA is supposed to standardize requirements for this, investigate for inadequacies, and enforce against violations is to require that relevant facilities are licensed and inspected as per minimum welfare standards.  However, facilities are too frequently re-licensed upon application despite chronic and/or extreme violations of these minimum requirements.  Roadside zoos, for example, which are controversial and often cited for dangerous conditions for the animals and insufficient safety precautions for humans and public safety, have been found in continuing violation of various Animal Welfare Act standards, and yet given license renewals despite these issues.  Promoting adherence to the Animal Welfare Act standards, both in initial inspections and via corrective measures, would require the USDA to insist that applicants for re-licensure prove compliance before their renewals are approved.  The USDA beginning to enforce this would be the first step toward meaningful reform of this violation and licensure process:  Animal Welfare Act could protect animals and taxpayers — if it’s enforced
  • Organic food fraud:  Demand for the USDA to extend its oversight of the organic food industry is growing, in reflection of the ongoing debate over what is guaranteed by or represented in the “USDA Organic” labeling.  This is an important detail to consider in consumer protection for the USDA, as purchasers are vulnerable to frauds perpetrated by sellers that use the organic labeling under the indicia of USDA approval but do not actually meet organic standards.  Investigative reporting over the last year has uncovered a wide variety of products with questionable authenticity justifying the labeling.  The ultimate responsibility lies with the USDA to monitor products using this labeling, especially those coming from foreign producers.  Consumers pay a premium to organic products and therefore modernization and extension of the USDA’s systems and practices in tracking and investigating organic claims are necessary to protect these customers:  Organic food fraud leads Congress to weigh bill doubling USDA oversight 
  • Animal rights and organic certification: Bringing together the previous two points, the Animal Welfare Act and “USDA Organic” certification come together in bioethics questions about the treatment of livestock.  In response to years of public demand and outcry, the USDA has been developing special standards for the minimum treatment expectations for animals that come from farms whose products bear the “USDA Organic” label and represent the standard.  Consumer expectations that animals from these farms would have higher welfare standards in their treatment have driven these developments.  However, in the current deregulatory environment, this development toward improved animal welfare standards has lost momentum.  Without any indication that animal treatment standards would be higher for organic facilities, this could harm consumers as well as producers, hampering incentives to purchasing as well as true engagement with common-sense animal welfare practices:  Should ‘USDA Organic’ animals be treated more humanely?    
  • School lunch nutrition:  This deregulatory trend has also had an impact on the USDA’s nutrition services priorities.  Pending requirements that were intended to make school meals healthier have been put on the backburner under the premise that schools should have more flexibility to provide lunches attuned to student and local stakeholder preference.  Sodium reduction and whole grain mandates were major components of the prior school nutrition improvement plans.  Opinions vary as to whether this will be a permanent rollback or just a delay in releasing the new standards, but either way, schools and nutrition professionals will look to the USDA for providing resources to and setting standards in their lunch programs:  USDA delays healthy school lunch requirements

Be sure to check back next week for a round-up on EPA regulatory compliance.


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