An Opportunity to Rethink the USDA

An interesting thing happened in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic this year. For over 30 years medical experts have been trying to broaden TeleMed activities across the US. This has been hampered by a variety of vested interests hanging on to the status quo. Doctors, insurance companies and hospitals all lined up against it saying it would never work. Then COVID-19 hit. In a matter of weeks TeleMed was the primary vehicle for all medical appointments across the US.

Has this change gone perfectly? No, and that was not to be expected. However, it has gone well enough that the medical community sees great promise for it to continue for regular medical checkups and especially in expanding medical access for rural and poor communities. What does this have to do with the USDA? It can be said in many ways, that the USDA has become just as sclerotic and incapable of adequately fulfilling its mission, as has the medical community and many other long standing US institutions both public and private.

First, consider the mission of the USDA as it has evolved over time. The USDA was first established by Abraham Lincoln and was focused solely on the promotion and research into the growing US Food Industry. In the late 19th century, regulation of food safety in the meat industry was added to the mission. This was the era of Upton Sinclair and abuses within the privately run and lightly regulated meat industry, which were so egregious that they required immediate action. However, additional responsibility set up an internal conflict between working with the food industry to promote it, while simultaneously regulating it.

When first looking at re-creating a governmental agency for the 21st century, the first question one should ask is what should their mission be. To answer this question, one should think about what should be done primarily by the private sector, the government or in partnership. And making sure an agency role is as conflict free as possible.

When the mission is clearly focused the next question that should be asked is how the mission should be executed. I would wager that if appropriately focused, an updated mission for the USDA would not require 100,000 employees and 4500 offices. Computer systems built in the mid-20th century, physical offices in the era of “work from home” and tasks/responsibilities built up over the years that no longer are relevant, all contribute to this inefficiency.

To me the USDA would be best served by splitting off the Food Safety part of its responsibility(FSIS) and merge it with the Food Safety part of the FDA in a single food safety regulatory agency. This would eliminate inherent conflicts of interest, while allowing the FDA to focus 100% on medical implements and drugs. Then the USDA can go back to its original mandate of basic food industry research into needs such as nutrition and sustainability, along with promoting the overall health and competitiveness of both large and small industry firms and farms.

For years everyone involved in the industry says this is too complicated and has too many political obstacles. I would argue that if like TeleMed we had no choice, a complete rethinking and restructuring of the agency could be accomplished in less than a year. This is good because with a food industry extracting from nature far more than it puts back, along with producing food of limited nutritional benefit while simultaneously denying healthy food choices to a large percentage of the population, it could be said that we are nearly out of time already.