March 28, 2017
Former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue finally had his day in front of the Senate, the last in a long line of Trump administration nominees. In the two months since the announcement of his nomination for Secretary of Agriculture, questions have been raised about Perdue’s conflicts of interest, denial of climate change, ethical violations, and efforts to undermine food safety and local control. Last Thursday, the Senate Agriculture Committee had the opportunity to question Governor Perdue about these concerns and what his track record, relationships and perspectives would mean for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Not a single question, however, was asked about climate change, ethics, or his handling of food safety challenges as governor of Georgia. A simple review of Perdue’s track record, though, provides all the information we need to determine his ability to lead the USDA in the best interest of the American people.
In terms of food safety, there is much to point to. In 2004, during his first term as governor, he cut funding for Georgia’s food safety and inspection unit by nearly one third (1). In 2006, a Salmonella outbreak from peanut butter produced at a Georgia plant sickened 628 people; in 2008, a similar outbreak traced to another Georgia plant killed nine people and sickened 714 more (2). During a hearing before the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Georgia’s Deputy Agriculture Commissioner at the time indicated that the Department did not have adequate funding to complete all of the required inspections of food production sites (3), potentially leading to the unsanitary conditions that caused the Salmonella contamination and outbreak. Only after the second outbreak did Perdue take action, funding a pathogen testing facility in Georgia. Perdue’s actions—the initial decision to slash funding for food safety measures and his delayed response following two major outbreaks—indicate that he will be reluctant to take the necessary steps to reduce the burden of foodborne illness or strengthen food safety efforts as USDA Secretary.
Perdue also has a track record of undermining local control. For example, he revoked local control over agriculture and promoted the expansion of industrial food animal production while governor of Georgia. He signed House Bill 529, the Landowner Protection Act, which prohibits local governments from adopting any regulation of crop management or animal husbandry practices. This type of state preemption of local authority may prevent citizens from addressing the air quality, water quality, and community impacts of industrial food animal production operations (4).
As governor of Georgia, Perdue oversaw the nation’s largest chicken producing state (5), as well as the consolidation and concentration of the poultry industry in Georgia (6). He also sought the expansion of industrialized poultry production. During his governorship, Perdue Farms, Inc. (no relation to the governor) announced a significant expansion of their operations in two of the state’s counties, investing over $155 million to increase the capacity of existing plants, introduce new facilities, and establish 500 new poultry houses (7). This loyalty to agribusiness is also revealed in a closer look at his campaign contributions. During his seven political campaigns in Georgia, Governor Perdue received a total of $328,328 in contributions from agribusiness interests, including $104,470 from the poultry and egg industry (8). Governor Perdue’s close ties to and consistent support of the poultry industry—coupled with his lack of initiative to reform an industry that exploits farmers, harms the environment, and endangers public health (6, 9)—provide reason to believe he will continue to place his own interests ahead of his duty to serve the public and farmers.
Governor Perdue’s conflicts of interest don’t stop at agribusiness; they extend to the energy sector as well. He opposed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions during his tenure as governor of Georgia (10), and has since called into question climate change science (11). Campaign contribution records showing significant donations from the oil and gas industry, a total of $286,750 (12), signal that Governor Perdue’s climate change denial may be rooted in more than just a lack of scientific understanding.
USDA’s leadership position on climate change is important not only because of the significant role agriculture plays in the problem, contributing more global greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation sector (13), but also because of the adverse impacts of climate change on agriculture (14). From rising sea levels, warming temperatures, and alterations in precipitation to increasing severity, frequency, and duration of heat waves, droughts, flooding and severe weather events, climate change is threatening human health and safety, both directly and through the negative effects on agriculture, nutrition, and food safety and security (14). Climate change is anticipated to disrupt agriculture and fisheries, important sectors of our economy, making it more difficult to grow crops, produce food animals, and catch fish (15). These disruptions can negatively impact food availability, access, and quality in the U.S. and globally, and potential food shortages can lead to rising domestic food prices, humanitarian crisis, and national security concerns (15). If the USDA Secretary is unable to mitigate, prepare for, and address these concerns due to industry ties and personal beliefs, American agriculture, health, and safety will be put at risk.
Lastly, Perdue’s violation of state ethics laws and self-serving legislative efforts while governor of Georgia are also serious concerns. Mr. Perdue reportedly accepted gifts and campaign contributions that exceeded state limits and signed a state tax bill that saved him, personally, about $100,000 in taxes (16). His personal lawyer was a member of the Georgia House of Representatives at the time and advocated to make the new tax law apply retroactively, presumably to benefit Governor Perdue. These violations and conflicts of interest cast doubt on Governor Perdue’s ability to ethically lead the USDA, one of our largest federal agencies with a budget of about $140 billion a year.
Perdue’s nomination must now be voted out of the Senate Agriculture Committee before it moves to a full Senate vote for confirmation. According to Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R–Kansas), the vote on Perdue’s nomination will be scheduled “ASAP.” Perdue’s failure to protect food safety and health, conflicts of interests throughout his political career, ethical lapses, and science denial all call into question his ability to lead a department charged with administering food safety and nutrition programs and agricultural support and regulations, and must be taken into consideration. A vote in support of Sonny Perdue is a vote against food safety and the protection of public health and the environment.
Image: By The U.S. Food and Drug Administration – FDA Food Safety & Applied Nutrition Lab (3852), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48274308
- The Governor’s Budget Report—Amended Fiscal Year 2004. State of Georgia. Accessed March 1, 2017 from http://opb.georgia.gov/sites/opb.georgia.gov/files/related_files/site_page/163065057gov_rec_afy04.pdf.
- Hanson, Jaydee. “Sonny Perdue Won’t Offer Much Promise for the Future of Our Food System.” The Hill. February 12, 2017. Accessed March 1, 2017 from http://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/energy-environment/319087-sonny-perdue-wont-offer-much-promise-for-the-future-of.
- The Salmonella Outbreak: The Continued Failure to Protect the Food Supply. Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, House of Representatives. February 11, 2009. Accessed March 1, 2017 from https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CHRG-111hhrg63824/pdf/CHRG-111hhrg63824.pdf.
- Adawi, Nadia S. State Preemption of Local Control Over Intensive Livestock Operations. Environmental Law Reporter, 6-2014. Accessed March 1, 2017 from http://www.adawi-law.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Adawi-Local-Control-ELR-44.10506.pdf.
- Top Broiler Producing States. National Chicken Council. 2010. Accessed March 1, 2017 from http://www.nationalchickencouncil.org/about-the-industry/statistics/top-broiler-producing-states/.
- Big Chicken: Pollution and Industrial Poultry Production in America. The Pew Environment Group. July 27, 2011. Accessed March 1, 2017 from http://www.pewtrusts.org/~/media/legacy/uploadedfiles/peg/publications/report/pegbigchickenjuly2011pdf.pdf.
- Perdue Farms Plans Major Expansion in Georgia. State of Georgia Office of Communications. July 14, 2005. Accessed March 1, 2017 from http://sonnyperdue.georgia.gov/00/press/detail/0,2668,78006749_79688147_93050140,00.html.
- Philpott, Tom. “Updated: Trump’s USDA Pick Just Loves the Confederacy.” Mother Jones. January 4, 2017. Accessed March 1, 2017 from http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2017/01/sonny-perdue-usda-trump.
- Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America. The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; 2008. Accessed March 24, 2017. http://www.pewtrusts.org/~/media/legacy/uploadedfiles/peg/publications/report/pcifapfinalpdf.pdf
- Letter from 20 Governors to Leaders in Congress: 100310-Gov. On The Issues. March 20, 2010. Accessed March 1, 2017 from http://www.ontheissues.org/Notebook/Note_100310-Gov.htm.
- Perdue, Sonny. “The Common Core Blame Game.” National Review. May 8, 2014. Accessed March 1, 2017 from http://www.nationalreview.com/article/377495/common-core-blame-game-sonny-perdue.
- National Institute on Money in State Politics: Sonny Perdue. Accessed March 1, 2017 from http://www.followthemoney.org/entity-details?eid=6416704&default=candidate.
- Gerber PJ, Steinfeld H, Henderson B, et al. Tackling Climate Change through Livestock–A Global Assessment of Emissions and Mitigation Opportunities. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; 2013. http://www.fao.org/3/i3437e.pdf
- United States Environmental Protection Agency. Climate Impacts on Human Health. Updated: January 13, 2017. Accessed February 1, 2017 from https://www.epa.gov/climate-impacts/climate-impacts-human-health
- United States Environmental Protection Agency. Climate Impacts on Agriculture and Food Supply. Updated: October 6, 2016. Accessed February 1, 2017 from https://www.epa.gov/climate-impacts/climate-impacts-agriculture-and-food-supply
- Lipton E, Eder S. Ethics Questions Dogged Agriculture Nominee as Georgia Governor. The New York Times. March 8, 2017. Accessed March 10, 2017 from https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/03/08/us/politics/sonny-perdue-georgia.html?emc=edit_th_20170309&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=69582814&_r=0&referer=