The Role of the USDA
Policy disconnect can occur at all levels of implementation. One of the largest policy disconnects has occurred within the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA mission, “We provide leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, and related issues based on sound public policy, the best available science, and efficient management (USDA, 2009).” The USDA accomplishes its mission through 21 different agencies and services that operate under its authority. The mechanics of the organization makes the USDA an unusual department. The size of the USDA and its power over many different areas of government have created a situation where policies not only spiral out of control but at times have no connection with implementation.
The organization maintains such a broad-based mission that it becomes difficult to define it as purely distributive or regulatory in nature. For instance, operating within the USDA is the Wildlife Services Agency which has been involved with several controversies in the last 15 years. Notably, in 1997 the agency was accused of abuse of power as it spent over $100,000 helping one rancher kill predatory animals on his ranch. The agent accused of this gross waste spent over 1300 hours on the ranch in question, helping to kill over 70 animals. But because of the broad mission of the USDA this particular agency operates within the boundaries of the law as it is ‘managing’ the ranch and thus a component of the US food supply.
Another example of the USDA acting in a regulatory manner is in April 25, 2005, the USDA released Draft Program Standards (ST) and a Draft Strategic Plan (DSP) concerning the National Animal Identification System. This plan and strategy requires that every owner of livestock have every animal they own tagged with a GPS locator. The plan may also include collecting the DNA of every animal. The owner will be required to report: the birthdates of all animals, the application of every animal’s ID tag, every time an animal leaves or enters the property, every time an animal loses a tag, every time a tag is replaced, the slaughter or death of an animal, or if any animal is missing. This initiative by the USDA is an attempt to safeguard the US food supply and to reduce cost of inspections on ranches and farms. The problem with this plan is that it only tracks the animals and does not give and real evidence of maltreatment to the animals or whether they are being fed appropriate nutrition that will make them fit for human consumption. But the bigger problem is that this plan will put small ranchers in debt trying to follow the regulation. The new policy and regulations towards livestock will be enforced with fines.
One can plainly see in these prior examples how the USDA operates in a regulatory fashion, the USDA also acts in a distributive manner, as the organization is authorized to distribute grants, loans, and assistance to farmers and ranchers (Meier and Bohte, 2007). Again the already vague enabling legislation of most bureaus coupled with the enormous size and budget of the USDA, gives this department a wide range of discretion. Especially, in light of the fact that USDA workers often operate alone or out of field offices in rural areas, this only increases the discretion and policy interpreting.
On many occasions the USDA has initiated policy that has been expensive to the American people. In November 2009 the USDA spent $50 million to assist struggling pork producers. Albeit small pork farmers are struggling, however, the USDA made this decision without any oversight and based upon a vague policy to assist farmers with product development.
Along with the many controversial issues involving the USDA there are many positive aspects of the department. First, that the USDA has helped countless farmers through rough economic times. As well the USDA has assisted in developing overseas markets for farmers such as in China. This growth has helped the commercial farmer to weather recession and climate catastrophes.
Another positive aspect of the USDA is that because of its strength, its mission to protect the American food supply is surpassed by no other country in the world. The efforts of the USDA have created the safest environments and food supplies. Disease such as mad cow disease is quickly maintained and stopped from escalating. In other countries disease often wipes out large portions of the cattle population and the people.
The level of protection of the USDA also extends to animals being raised by farmers. Before USDA involvement animals were routinely fed substandard nutrients and even cement for weight purposes during sales and auction. This type of maltreatment is all but nonexistent in the United States. So although the USDA does have some negative aspects, the department has also done an exceeding amount of good. Because of the many positive aspects of the USDA, Americans view the department in a generally good light. To many Americans the waste of the USDA and over presumption of authority are worth the protection of their food supply.
There are many scholars who believe that the USDA is too large to be managed properly and that some of its agencies and bureaus should be placed under other departments where they can receive the needed oversight. Such examples include the Wildlife division which really has nothing to do with the USDA mission except as vaguely interpreted by the organization. This division typically protects ranches and farms from predatory species that may interrupt the farming ranching process. This is an example of a division that was created by the USDA for the purpose of carrying out its mission. This example truly highlights the power that the USDA has and the financial backing (USDA, 2009).
At times it does seem that there are no limits to the USDA interpretation of policy as anything to do with food gives the USDA license to act. For instance, the USDA started investigating pork farms for possible disease such as H1N1 virus and other swine related diseases. The problem with this investigating is that most of the USDA inspectors are not qualified disease experts and really have no business inspecting these factory farms for this purpose. The policy followed in this instance has historically been for the inspector to ensure that the diseased animals were destroyed and never made it into the food supply. The actual testing of animals for diseases was left to veterinarians and disease control experts (Philpott, 2009).
In some instances the inspectors have begun inspecting these farms for safety hazards. Because of vague interpretation of policy to protect food, the USDA has taken it upon itself to start inspecting farms in the manner that OSHA inspectors would investigate factories. The inspectors are suppose to be looking for violations in food or livestock handling. But again they are interpreting policy as they see fit.
With a budget exceeding $95 billion the USDA seems almost out of control as it does whatever it deems necessary in the completion of its mission. The USDA has drawn a great deal of controversy with its policy initiatives. However, the department does accomplish its mission even if in a manner that is overzealous (USDA, 2009).
Philpott, T. (2009, November 16). Why the Usda has no business overseeing conditions on factory farms, and more. Grist, 52, 2–3.
Politics and The Bureaucracy, Policymaking in the Fourth Branch of Government, Keneth J. Meier, John Bohte, 2007
USDA, . (2009, November 24). Mission statement. Retrieved from http://www.usda.gov/