White House Plan Would Move Food Aid Out Of USDA, Combine Food Safety Efforts

By Grant Gerlock

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is the nation’s largest program to reduce hunger. It’s also the biggest program at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But under the White House’s plan to reorganize the federal government, released Thursday, SNAP would have a new home at a revamped Department of Health and Human Services.

The Trump administration also proposes to shift food safety entirely under the USDA instead of having duties split between the Food and Drug Administration and the USDA. It’s an idea that the Obama administration proposed in 2015, though under HHS, but it went nowhere.

On both accounts, Congress would have to agree to making such significant changes.

SNAP

SNAP takes up around three-quarters of USDA spending and is a large part of the farm bill. In March, the program distributed nearly $5 billion in benefits to 20 million households.

The White House argued in its proposal that states face an “administrative burden” to report SNAP details to the USDA because states then report cash-welfare program details to HHS.

Putting SNAP under the same roof as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) would cut down on paperwork and streamline the regulatory process when it comes to writing rules and approving waivers, the proposal suggested.

It also added that doing so will “ensure that policies are applied consistently across all programs, potentially reducing confusing, complex, and sometimes contradictory requirements across programs that can make it difficult for both States and participants to follow the rules.”

The school lunch program and commodity-purchasing programs that help supply food banks would stay at USDA.

The USDA didn’t immediately return a request for comment. But the suggestions received a mixed response from various groups. Dottie Rosenbaum, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities said “there’s room for improvement,” adding, “I don’t think it requires radical restructuring and the programs being moved across agencies.”

But Robert Rector, a research fellow at the conservative think-tank Heritage Foundation, said it’s the right move to shift SNAP.

“It fits much better at HHS than it does at the agriculture department,” he said. “The agriculture department should be about agriculture, about growing crops and about farmers.”

Besides downsizing the USDA, moving SNAP also would shake up food and farm politics. For decades, the fate of farm support programs has been tied to SNAP in the farm bill.

“My concern is that this traditional and strong relationship between farmers and anti-hunger groups would be broken, to some extent, if it was moved over to HHS,” said Craig Gundersen, who studies SNAP at the University of Illinois.

Food safety

Another recommendation would merge the food safety responsibilities of the Food and Drug Administration and the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) under a new USDA branch called the the Federal Food Safety Agency.

The plan highlighted some ways the current system is inconsistent.

“While FSIS has regulatory responsibility for the safety of liquid eggs, FDA has regulatory responsibility for the safety of eggs while they are inside of their shells; FDA regulates cheese pizza, but if there is pepperoni on top, it falls under the jurisdiction of FSIS; FDA regulates closed-faced meat sandwiches, while FSIS regulates open-faced meat sandwiches,” the document said.

The devil is in the details, according to Laura MacCleery, who’s the policy director for the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The FDA has been working on implementing the massive Food Safety Modernization Act signed in 2011, she said, and believes it would be hard to reconcile all of those rules with the USDA.

“You can see the different agencies would have a different expertise about the industries that they oversee,” MacCleery said.

And then there’s the fact that Congress would need to weigh in.

“Members of Congress with a long standing of expertise in some aspect of the Department of Agriculture or the Food and Drug Administration are loathe to give up that power to influence food safety,” MacCleery said.

Follow Grant on Twitter: @ggerlock

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