Washington Insider -- Monday

Secretary Perdue and the Organics Checkoff

Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

Ross: Trump to Launch Notification of NAFTA Talks Within Weeks

Congress could be notified within two weeks of Trump administration plans to launch formal renegotiation talks on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said today.

Ross said the administration will follow the notification process laid out under Trade Promotion Authority, also known as fast-track authority, approved by Congress in 2015. The letter to Congress will give the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees 90-day notice that the administration plans to begin NAFTA talks, the objectives of those talks and whether the talks are for a new trade agreement or revamping of the current 23-year-old trade pact with Canada and Mexico.

“Under U.S. law there’s a very specific set of processes that is required to get through the Trade Promotion Act, the so-called fast-track for negotiations,'' said Ross at a joint press conference with Ildefonso Guajardo Villarreal, Mexico's economic minister. "We are now in the very early stages of that. The next stage will be, hopefully, sometime in the next couple of weeks we’ll be issuing the 90-day letter and that’s what triggers the beginning of the formal process itself. We don’t have a date certain for that,” Ross said.

The administration has been informally consulting with the two committees, the key trade panels that would be responsible for moving a final agreement through Congress. Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said earlier this week discussions with Trump officials were progressing and that he expected the White House to trigger the 90-day notification soon.

Mexico will be ready to start for formal negotiations by the end of May, Guajardo said. He said Mexican and U.S. officials have been exploring areas for negotiations. “We will be waiting for the US and Canada as they go through their own legislative process to kick off negotiations,” Guajardo said. Mexico would prefer that the U.S. approach NAFTA renegotiations as a three-country trade pact rather than America striking separate deals with Mexico and Canada, he added. “NAFTA is a trilateral agreement. It would make a lot of sense to have trilateral discussions. On the larger agenda beyond trade, there are some bilateral issues like security, borders,” Guajardo said.

Ross said the administration “is less concerned at this stage with the exact form than we are with trying to get to the substance.”


Trump to Nominate Gottlieb for FDA

President Donald Trump intends to nominate Scott Gottlieb to lead the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), according to a White House aide.

Gottlieb, a resident fellow at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute think tank, is widely known on Capitol Hill. He is a former FDA deputy commissioner who has advocated for business-friendly policies and a faster process for bringing drugs to the market.

Gottlieb has been on GlaxoSmithKline’s research and development board since 2010, according to his resume, and previously was on its oncology board. He advises Bristol Meyers Squibb on its cancer drugs and Cell Biotherapy, an oncology start up. Gottlieb was a senior adviser to Vertex Pharmaceuticals, maker of expensive cystic fibrosis drugs, from 2009 through 2016.

He holds seats on the boards of drug companies Daiichi Sankyo and Tolero Pharmaceuticals; medical lab company American Pathology Partners; MedAvante, a contract research organization, and Glytech, which makes an FDA-approved insulin dosing support system. He has also served on the board of insurance and medical diagnostic companies.

Gottlieb was FDA’s deputy commissioner for medical and scientific affairs from 2005 to 2007, and chief policy adviser to the CMS administrator in 2004, during implementation of Medicare Part D. Earlier he was a senior adviser and director of medical policy development at FDA, where he worked on issues like orphan drugs, and combination products. CMS is the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. At CMS, he helped implement the Medicare Part D program that provided prescription drug coverage for seniors.

In past speeches, Gottlieb has indicated a link between lowering prices and speeding approval. He has praised the FDA cancer division’s efforts in getting drugs approved faster, and suggested that other parts of the agency need to emulate its approach, particularly for rare genetic diseases.

Washington Insider: Secretary Perdue and the Organics Checkoff

Press reports indicate that the nomination papers for Governor Sonny Perdue have gone to Congress now and that administration’s supporters expect confirmation will soon follow. In the meantime, advocates of this and that are laying out a work schedule for the new secretary, starting with expanding and protecting agricultural markets overseas, preparing for the next farm bill and perhaps a thousand other things. He certainly will be busy.

One of these “to do’s” is spelled out in a letter carried by The Hill from Amanda Zaluckyj, a writer at The Farmer’s Daughter USA in Michigan. Ms Zaluckyj says that “housecleaning” USDA “ought to be at the top of his agenda” and one of the things she has in mind is removal of the “unholy alliance that has formed between the media, the federal government and Big Organic, which she sees as a multibillion-dollar industry committed to “duping the public into paying a hefty premium for the privilege of buying politically correct food.”

For starters, the article points to the live NPR broadcast that took place at a fundraising dinner for The Organic Center last week. The publicly funded media outlet assisted the lobbying arm of an industry worth $43 billion, spreading the word that organic is better because “science says so.” That’s classic propaganda, Zaluckyj says.

It’s not clear why taxpayers should subsidize publicity for an event already underwritten by well-heeled sponsors, including Whole Foods and a long list of other foodie firms, “and that’s just a start.” She seems mainly worried about a USDA proposed “Organic Checkoff” that permits marketing research and promotion programs that “bad-mouth the safety of affordable food,” and attempt to scare the public into buying overpriced produce.

The Checkoff would funded by a small tax, one-tenth of one percent in most cases, on organic food, thus making “already overpriced products even less affordable.” This is because “Big Organic” is desperate to secure the extra credibility that comes from the government imprimatur on its messaging. The estimated $30 million to $40 million raised annually by the Check-Off would most likely be funneled to The Organic Center, a tax-exempt charitable organization that’s funded, co-located and led by Organic Trade Association, Zaluckyj says.

USDA, at least under its previous management, was expected to launch the checkoff program following a comment period that ends April 19. “That leaves enough time to ensure the program never gets off the ground,” the article says.

In addition, it charges that propaganda efforts like this aren’t just a waste of money, they can cause real harm. For instance, Big Organic’s minions regularly publish a list of the “Dirty Dozen” foods, vegetables they claim were tainted by excessive pesticides. But the people who heard this message didn’t just turn to organics, they tended to stop eating fruits and vegetables altogether, according to a study by nutrition experts from the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.

Would low-income shoppers see a health benefit by switching to organic? Definitely not, Zaluckyj says. Over 240 peer-reviewed scientific studies have searched in vain for a benefit to eating organic. That’s because organic food and conventional food are virtually identical, “with the only difference being that organic produce is grown with inefficient, old-fashioned farming techniques.” There’s nothing wrong with organic food, “there’s just no legitimate safety, health or taste reason to pay more to cover the increased production costs.”

Surveys show that one of the most effective selling points of organic is that the produce is supposed to be “pesticide free”—a myth, Zaluckyj says, since federal rules allow Pyrethrins, rotenone and spinosad and others, all of which the Xerces Society has declared “highly toxic” to bees. They’re not safer, these chemicals are obsolete compared to more advanced, and safer, conventional pesticides.

So “organic marketing” is all about spreading misleading information, the article charges and the government should not be involved in this effort, picking sides between organic and conventional agriculture. Perdue can stop this by shutting down the Organic Check-Off program for good.

Zaluckyj suggests that when the Senate Ag Committee grills Governor Perdue, it should take the opportunity to put the nominee on the spot. If he intends to “pull the plug on federal involvement in organic propaganda” that would go a long way toward cleaning up the department. The Hill says.

So, popular as USDA’s organics program is, it faces numerous critics who raise concerns like those published by The Hill. It is unlikely that an old pro like Gov. Perdue will lock himself into opposition or support for a program that is as popular and highly visible as the National Organics Program, But the administration may well choose to send signals about future support and the program could well face more skeptical questioners in the future than in the past, Washington Insider believes.

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