Is USDA Working for Agribusinesses?

New white paper discusses revolving door of conflict of interest at the USDA. Jacqui Fatka

Published on: Jul 23, 2004

Is the USDA still the "People's Department" as it was referred to in the Lincoln Administration? A new white paper claims the USDA has switched sides and should now be called the "Agribusiness Industry's Department."

A working group of the Agribusiness Accountability Initiative (AAI) released an analysis on Friday that examined flaws in the current Agricultural Department. The USDA has the second largest budget behind the Dept. of Defense and employees over 100,000 people. The groups who released the report say over a dozen of people holding policymaking level positions have "captured this agency" and serve a "narrow group of special interests," says Michael Stumo, lead counsel for the Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM).

The white paper, "USDA, Inc.: How Agribusiness Has Hijacked Regulatory Policy at the U.S. Department of Agriculture," points out that Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman once served on the Board of Directors for a biotech company. National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) formers fill the roles of key staff appointments including USDA chief of staff and director of communications. Previous lobbyists from dairy associations now claim the title of deputy chief of staff and deputy under secretary.

Peter O'Driscoll from AAI explains that the problem is likely rooted in campaign finance and money influence in politics. The paper says progress on the below measures will begin to turn USDA Inc. back into an arm of government that represents the public interest.

The paper calls for broad collaboration on an alternative agenda for addressing the problems at USDA, including:

  • Reappraisal of ethics rules to prevent government officials from overseeing policies that directly affect the interest of their former employers;
  • Enhancement of Congressional oversight over regulatory appointees;
  • Evaluation of whether USDA can continue to serve both as a promoter of U.S. agricultural products and a regulator of food safety; and
  • Further research on revolving-door conflicts of interest at USDA.

O'Driscoll hopes that Congress will respond to public pressure if individuals within the agricultural community make it an issue.