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USDA: Does a Grant Have to be Unique to be Relevant?

Jun 3

Written by: Grants Office, LLC
Monday, June 3, 2013  RssIcon

With the increasing demand for cuts from all corners of the U.S. Budget, it is not surprising that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) finds itself under the microscope. For years, the department has been criticized by columnists and politicians, as well as the Government Accountability Office (GAO), citing overlapping or even duplicative programs in more than a few areas. Program conflicts with other entities have been called out by GOA recently, including:


USDA Program

GAO-identified Overlap

Foreign Agriculture Service

Department of Interior (DOI) Fish and Wildlife Service AND Bureau of Land Management


Foreign Agriculture Service

Department of Commerce (DOC) International Trade Administration AND Trade Development Agency


Rural Business Cooperative Service

DOC Economic Development Administration


Rural Business Cooperative Service

Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)


Rural Housing Service

Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA)


National Agriculture Statistics Service

Similar statistical services of 11 other agencies



Food and Nutrition Service

Health and Human Services (HHS) Maternal and Child Health Bureau


The USDA’s broad mission is to "provide leadership in food, agriculture, natural resources, and related issues based on sound public policy, the best available science, and efficient management." The advancement of this mission takes USDA into the fields of agriculture, food and nutrition education and outreach, laws and regulations, marketing and trade, environmental issues concerning food, and research, making overlap with other programs all but inevitable. This is not to single out the USDA, but while other departments may have individual agencies which overlap with other agencies, the USDA has received special attention for a seemingly department-wide overlap, with almost all of its agencies having some kind of  similar function with agencies in other departments.  


The Obama administration in 2012 called for the power to consolidate a number of Federal agency activities. Setting the stage in his January 2011 State of the Union, the president joked, “The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in saltwater.” Amid peals of laughter in the House chamber, he continued, “I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked." In much the same way, though it may seem ridiculous, a lot of the justification for overlapping program objectives from agencies comes down to similar semantics.


The USDA may take care of energy, housing, or technology development in place of the departments of Energy or HUD if the targeted demographic is rural. The USDA regulates meat processed egg and animal vaccinations while the FDA regulates all other foods and vaccinations. What may come from this are problems of inefficiency, fragmented oversight, and room for special interest clout.


As recently as 2012 the GAO blew the whistle on moving catfish (and only catfish) from the FDA to USDA jurisdiction for regulation, in order to give domestic catfish produced in the South a leg up on imports by taking advantage of differing regulation costs and policies. Indeed, consolidating food inspection services is a hotly debated topic, and there have been many official recommendations to merge USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) with the food safety unit of the FDA. Though this may sound reasonable on the surface to increase efficiency, there are entrenched cultures and conflicts of interest in each department which have to be accounted for when merging, since the way in which either department regulates can have a profound effect on product prices, supply, and myriad other facets that may be much worse for the consumer than the status quo if regulation responsibility were consolidated. 


It has yet to be seen if the talk of creating a single and separate food safety agency will come to fruition. However, in light of the recent reallocation of $55 million to the USDA meat inspection programs, even in the face of sequestration, an overhaul of the USDA food inspection services and other programs does not seem to be on the horizon. Members of the administration, led by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, have acknowledged that programs should be more focused in order to avoid overlap. In a 2009 speech launching the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Vilsack stated the USDA needs to do "more work but in fewer areas." Changes will come but they will probably come in the form of USDA agencies developing a narrower focus, reflecting the more focused scope of the department in the future.

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