Betrayal at the USDA

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Unqualified government employees. Elected officials using their positions for personal gain. Policymakers favoring industry and disregarding science. Such betrayals of the public trust have become commonplace in the Trump administration. And while there’s been plenty of press coverage of HUD Secretary Ben Carson’s lavish dining set, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s shady condo deal, and President Trump choosing the White House physician to lead the VA, the same pattern is apparent in corners of the administration that have received less scrutiny.

Over the past year, I’ve tracked the actions of Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and his USDA. In a new UCS report released today, I document the many ways Secretary Perdue has, in his first full year on the job, betrayed farmers and the public he is sworn to serve. And I highlight ways we can push back (as some farmers are already doing—see below).

Welcome to the Department of Agribusiness

When Perdue took the helm at the USDA on April 25, 2017, he spoke of rolling up his sleeves and vowed to “work tirelessly to solve the issues facing our farm families.” Using his down-home Twitter handle @SecretarySonny, he regularly issues folksy tweets championing hardworking farmers. This week, he’s trundling through three states in an RV, making a show of getting out of Washington and talking to people in the heartland.

But over the past year, Perdue’s actual record of policy decisions has favored ideology over expertise and the interests of the Big Ag lobby over that of the majority of America’s 2 million farmers—and of all of us who eat.

A few examples:

  • There was the time last year when Perdue reversed newly-minted USDA rules meant to protect small farmers who raise poultry and livestock for big meat companies (think Tyson Farms and Smithfield Foods). As their name suggests, the Farmer Fair Practices Rules would have evened the playing field for those farmers, giving them more leverage in contracts with these corporate giants and making it easier for farmers to sue for abuses. (Lobbyists for the meat industry hailed Perdue’s action and suggested celebrating “with a top-quality steak.
  • Then there’s a pair of decidedly unscientific decisions related to nutrition, an important USDA responsibility that affects the health and well-being of our country. First, Perdue disregarded the best nutrition science in rolling back standards for school meals served to 45 million children every day. Under Perdue’s new rules, schools can serve “flavored” (read: sugar-sweetened) milk again and get a pass on implementing progressive sodium targets until at least 2020. In announcing the decision last May, Perdue assured reporters, “This is not reducing the nutritional standards whatsoever,” adding, “I wouldn’t be as big as I am today without flavored milk.” (The International Dairy Foods Association cheered.)

Farmers fight back

Secretary Perdue’s betrayal of farmers, in particular, may soon catch up with him. Already, his apparent failure to avert a Trumpian trade war that will hurt farm exports is causing anxiety and anger in farm country.

And now, a group of farmers is fighting his decision on the Farmer Fair Practice Rules in court.

In December, a handful of farmers and the watchdog Organization for Competitive Markets sued Perdue and the USDA, alleging that his decision to end the Farmer Fair Practices Rules unlawfully harms farmers. Just last week, the plaintiffs filed a new brief in the case, detailing the ways large agricultural companies have retaliated against them for standing up for their rights and how the now-rescinded rules would have helped them seek legal redress. The plaintiffs’ stories include companies lowballing them on price, retaliating against them when they complained, and even driving some out of business—practices they say the USDA’s own analysis shows are rampant in the livestock and poultry industries.

And OCM argues that Secretary Perdue and his USDA have failed to explain why rules that would prevent such actions are suddenly not needed.

Will sunshine be Sonny’s downfall?

Of course Perdue is siding with the agribusiness industry over the little guy. It’s who he has always been, going back to his days as Georgia governor. Back then, he made ethics pledges and promptly accepted gifts from lobbyists. He was fined by the state ethics board for campaign finance violations. And he went easy on big food companies in the state, which led to a pair of food safety crises—in the form of tainted peanut butter—that killed nine people and sickened more than 1,300. For all this, Perdue was named one of country’s the worst governors in 2010.

Anyone who studied Perdue’s record could have predicted how his tenure at the USDA would play out (and actually, some of us did). Still, over the past year, he has kept a relatively low profile as a member of the Trump cabinet “under the radar club,” avoiding serious scrutiny from the press while hewing closely to the boss’s deregulatory agenda.

As he hits the road this week, I’d like to see him field tough questions about why he is taking actions that hurt—rather than help—farmers and everyday people across this country.

 

Photo: Preston Keres/USDA