What USDA’s watchdogs are watching


Ryan McCrimmon, POLITICO



With help from Catherine Boudreau


WHAT USDA’S WATCHDOGS ARE WATCHING: The department’s top auditors were on the Hill for a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, where they discussed their work on everything from food stamps fraud and civil rights complaints to reviews of some of USDA’s most sweeping policies. Two issues in particular were front of mind for several Democrats: the Trump administration’s trade bailout for farmers and its overhaul of pork slaughterhouse inspections.


Inspector General Phyllis Fong’s office has been reviewing the department’s authority to provide more than $20 billion in direct payments to producers without an appropriation from Congress, as well as questions about whether the aid is unfairly tilted to certain states and commodity groups, she told House appropriators.


“We’re going to start out with the basic issue of authority for the programs, and then we’re going to get into the design and implementation, eligibility and look at the producer questions,” Fong said. “The first piece of our work should be coming out in the next several months.”


That wasn’t good enough for Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who pointed out that USDA is already distributing a final round of payments for 2019 losses. “Your delay in dealing with this means that this program is going to continue to move in the direction that it has been moving,” she said.


— Flashback: House Democrats made a half-hearted attempt last year to freeze funding for the trade aid program and force Congress to weigh in on the effort. But leaders quickly abandoned those plans following pushback from rural Democrats.


DeLauro also slammed USDA for choosing not to investigate JBS USA and potentially suspend or debar the meatpacker as a federal contractor. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue sent her a letter last month arguing that opening a USDA probe could interfere with a separate Justice Department investigation into the company for potentially violating foreign corruption laws, writes Pro Ag’s Catherine Boudreau.


— JBS has collected more than $100 million in pork contracts under a separate piece of Perdue’s trade relief package, the commodity purchase and redistribution program. The secretary has defended those contracts as supportive of pork prices and beneficial for hog farmers who supply to the meatpacker.


‘Final stages’ for review of pork slaughterhouse rule: The IG is aiming to publish by early April its findings about whether the Food Safety and Inspection Service relied on flawed worker-safety data when writing its final rule to lift processing line speeds at pork slaughterhouses and shift certain inspection duties to plant employees, your host reports.






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