Report says USDA overrun by corporate interests

OMAHA, Nebraska, July 26, 2004 (ENS): The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been "hijacked" by the agribusiness industry, according to a report by a coalition of family farm and public interest groups.

Many key policymaking positions at the agency are now held by individuals who previously worked for the industry, the report says, and regulatory policy at the USDA reflects a focus on advancing the goals of a few major corporate interests.

The report, titled "USDA INC." was commissioned by the Agribusiness Accountability Initiative and was released Friday at a conference in Omaha sponsored by the Organization for Competitive Markets. The department did not comment on the report.

The initiative includes representatives from Defenders of Wildlife, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Public Citizen, the American Corn Growers Association, Center of Concern, Farm Aid, and the Organization for Competitive Markets.

"In its early days, USDA was known as the People's Department," said Fred Stokes of the Organization for Competitive Markets, which first proposed the paper. "Today, it is, in effect, the Agribusiness Industry's Department, since its policies on issues such as food safety and fair market competition have been shaped to serve the interests of the giant corporations that now dominate food production and distribution."

Among several examples, the report 40 page report documents the USDA's continuing support for - and promotion of - agricultural biotechnology, despite a lack of consumer acceptance and concern by farmers over the impact on exports due to international resistance to genetically modified crops.

The report notes that Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman served on the board of directors of Calgene Inc., a biotechnology company that was later taken over by Monsanto, and the agency's head of biotech regulation, Neil Hoffman, worked for Paradigm Genetics, another biotech firm.

"It is not surprising that USDA is slavishly following the agenda of agribusiness when you consider who holds many of the top jobs at the department," said Philip Mattera, director of the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First and author of the report. "The upper ranks of USDA are filled with industry veterans, while people formerly associated with family farm, consumer or public interest groups are just about nowhere to be found."

The report documents how the USDA has taken industry friendly positions on mad cow disease, cattle industry competition, slaughterhouse inspection practices and concentrated animal feedlot operations.

In each of these cases, the report notes the presence of industry veterans among the chief officials responsible for adopting or maintaining these questionable policies.

In addition to working directly for agribusiness companies such as ConAgra and Campbell Soup, top USDA officials came to the department from industry trade associations such as the Food Marketing Institute and producer groups, including the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the National Pork Producers Council.

These industry groups are closely aligned with big processing companies and are partially funded by them.

The report recommends the department revise its ethics rules to prevent government officials from overseeing policies that directly affect the interest of their former employers. It also calls on Congress to take on a more active review of regulatory appointees and for additional research into "revolving door" conflicts of interest at the agency.

In addition, the alliance suggests Congress evaluate whether the USDA can continue to serve both as a promoter of U.S. agricultural products and a regulator of food safety.

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