Emails Show How Pesticide Industry Influenced U.S. Position in Health Talks
The emails, from a pesticide industry lobbyist to employees at the Department of Agriculture, expressed alarm over proposed guidelines issued by a United Nations task force working to combat the rise of drug-resistant infections that kill thousands each year.
Ray S. McAllister, a policy official at the trade association CropLife America, urged U.S. agriculture officials to fight any effort to include the words “crops” or “fungicides” in the guidelines — a position that would run counter to growing international consensus that the overuse of antifungal compounds is a threat to human health by contributing to drug resistance and should be monitored.
“I want to make certain I am correct in assuming that this document and associated comments do not address fungicide use,” he wrote to an agency veterinary scientist, who warned that such a position would leave the United States isolated.
Mr. McAllister got what he wanted.
When the Codex Intergovernmental Task Force on Antimicrobial Resistance met in South Korea several months later, the American delegation insisted that the guidelines omit any references to fungicides, a stance that infuriated other participants and forced a monthslong delay in the task force’s work.
The emails, which were written in 2018 and obtained through a lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental advocacy group, offer a behind-the-curtain peek at how the powerful pesticide industry influences policy decisions that can affect billions of people across the globe.
In a statement, the U.S.D.A. said the email exchanges were simply part of the agency’s process for crafting its official position. “It is the normal course of business for U.S.D.A. to solicit input from industry when developing a technical document in order to understand current practice in the United States,” the agency wrote.
Business interests have long had an outsize influence on the U.S. delegations that negotiate international food safety standards, but public-health and food-safety advocates say the Trump administration has vastly expanded access for industry lobbyists who are determined to thwart regulations and guidelines that might affect their bottom line.
“From everything we’ve seen, it’s clear that this administration believes rolling back regulations and protecting industry profits is more important than protecting public health,” said Nathan Donley, senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed a lawsuit against the U.S.D.A. after the agency rebuffed requests to release the emails under the Freedom of Information Act.
“But what these emails show is that the Department of Agriculture isn’t just soliciting their input,” Mr. Donley said. “They’re seeking their approval on what the government’s position should be.”
Several food-safety and health advocates who have been participating in the antimicrobial task force over the past four years said the agency had never directly solicited their input, nor given them the chance to modify the government’s official position. They also noted that Washington’s efforts to keep antifungal drugs out of the task force’s documents stand in contrast to federal policies aimed at monitoring the potential impacts those drugs have on human health.
“What the U.S. essentially wants is weak international standards because that makes it easier for American companies to export these pesticides,” said Steven Roach, a senior analyst for Keep Antibiotics Working, a coalition of consumer and environmental groups seeking to combat the inappropriate use of antimicrobial drugs in the food supply. “It’s bad for the world, but it’s bad for the U.S. because so much of our food comes from overseas.”
In its statement, the agriculture department said, “The United States supports improved AMR monitoring and surveillance programs both in the United States and in other countries, consistent with public health priorities.”
Health officials in the United States have long acknowledged the dangers of overusing antimicrobials in agriculture. At least 80 percent of all medically important antibiotics sold in the United States end up in pig feed or sprayed on orange groves, and scientists worry that the prodigious use of such drugs can encourage dangerous pathogens to mutate and survive. Drug-resistant infections kill more than 35,000 Americans each year and sicken nearly three million, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Infection. With few new medicines in the pipeline, the United Nations says resistant infections could claim 10 million lives a year globally by 2050, exceeding deaths from cancer.
Although the research on agricultural fungicides is less extensive than the study of antibiotics, scientists say the same dynamic is already playing out with the antifungal compounds that are sprayed on vegetables and flowers. Researchers believe the surge in a drug-resistant lung infection called aspergillosis is associated with the pesticides, and many suspect they are behind the rise of Candida auris, a deadly fungal infection.
President Trump has made his disdain for environmental and food-safety regulations a key part of his administration. He has reversed or revoked more than 70 rules on clean air, water and toxic chemicals, and set in motion Washington’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization and the Paris Agreement on climate change.
Other actions have received less public notice, including a decision to change the way the United States participates in the Codex Alimentarius Commission, or Codex, a joint project of the W.H.O. and U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization that sets food-safety and quality standards critical for resolving trade disputes.
The U.S. Codex office had long been run by the public health arm of U.S.D.A., but in 2017, the administration shifted it to a newly created trade division overseen by Ted McKinney, a former executive at Elanco, a veterinary pharmaceutical company that sells antibiotics for livestock.
The move prompted concern from the Food and Drug Administration and angered former U.S.D.A. officials who said it threatened to erode Washington’s standing as a global leader on issues of food safety.
“The optics, of course, were horrible,” said Brian Ronholm, a former under secretary for food safety at U.S.D.A. who was closely involved with the Codex process.
Lisa Lefferts, a senior scientist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest who has been closely following the antimicrobial task force proceedings, said the emails between pesticide executives and agency staff members helped explain why so many positions embraced by the United States in recent years have so closely resembled those advanced by industry.
“The comments and edits were nearly identical,” she said. “I find it distressing that the U.S. is pushing the industry’s positions on matters of public health.”
The emails suggest that agency officials were eager for industry input. In one exchange, a U.S.D.A. official emailed CropLife America to get its approval for new language that pushed back on recommendations from the task force calling for the monitoring of antimicrobials used on plants. “I also wanted to be sure you saw the new proposed text insertion from the US on page 8 regarding crops and are ok with it,” the official wrote.
Mr. McAllister, the CropLife official replied, “I’m copying here my grower and registrant colleagues.”
In a statement, Chris Novak, the president of CropLife America, said the association “joined other organizations and countries to provide feedback highlighting the importance of Codex focusing on medically-relevant antimicrobials.”
When industry officials failed in their effort to have any mention of crops removed from the document, they sought to limit what one executive described in an email as “radical international forces” that were seeking to upend the U.S. regulatory approach to fungicides.
In a subsequent email, James R. Cranney, Jr., president of the California Citrus Quality Council, acknowledged defeat but offered up another strategy: “We should try to have as much influence as we can in the Codex process without calling too much attention to the horticultural sector.”
Mr. Cranney did not respond to an email requesting comment.
In the end, the United States submitted language opposing the surveillance of antimicrobials, citing what it called a lack of data. Despite widespread opposition from other delegates, U.S. officials persisted, and the outcome was something of a draw.
The final guidelines are scheduled for release early next year.