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Long-vacant position critical for USDA's food safety mission, experts say

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As candidates emerge for the under secretary for food safety at USDA, advocates and even former top-ranking USDA officials have expressed hope the Trump administration is finally making a move to fill what is arguably the highest-ranking food safety position in U.S. government.

The USDA undersecretary for food safety position at USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has stayed vacant since the departure of Elizabeth Hagen in Dec. 2013 and, according to some experts, that has not been without consequences for food safety.

“What is happening in this current situation is that you have all the day-to-day critical issues being addressed – all the recalls, the Federal Register notices, …” said Brian Ronholm, who was appointed deputy under secretary for food safety during the Obama administration and became acting under secretary for food safety after Hagen’s departure.

“But what you lack, are the big-picture policy objectives that come with the undersecretary position,” Ronholm said. “You want to have that kind of big-picture vision that creates the agenda of how the agency will reduce foodborne illness rates over the coming years.”

The absence of a Congress-confirmed leader, who has the authority to lay out long-term plans and advocate for food safety objectives, has been a subtle drawback for the agency, but it became more obvious in USDA’s recent and much-criticized attempt to move the U.S. Codex Office to the agency’s new trade function and away from FSIS, Ronholm said.  

While Perdue proposed the Codex move as a way to elevate the agency profile and improve coordination on trade and international activities, the FDA along with a number of former top-ranking officials spoke up against the change, explaining that it could be perceived as subordinating public health priorities to commercial interests and, ultimately damage the authority of the United States within the international Codex community.

The pushback resulted in Perdue pausing the plan – which could have happened much earlier had there been an actual food safety under secretary at FSIS, Ronholm believes.  

“The Codex Office [situation] helps demonstrate the need for a strong under secretary, because he or she would have been able to explain the nuances and complexities of Codex and make the case that the proposal should be reconsidered before the Secretary moved forward with it,” Ronholm said.

An agent for change

The under secretary for food safety at FSIS is a political job, for which candidates are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. While FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also have similar food safety positions, neither of them requires a confirmation by Congress.

Created through the Department of Agriculture Reorganization Act of 1994, the under secretary for food safety job oversees the FSIS, which monitors the safety of the nation’s supply of meat, poultry, and processed egg products. Among other duties, the under secretary also chairs the U.S. Codex Steering Committee, which provides guidance to U.S. delegations to the Codex Alimentarius Commission.

The position was created to address recurring charges of conflicts of interest between the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s marketing and promotion activities and its public health regulatory functions, said Thomas Gremillion, director of food policy at the Consumer Federation of America.  

But since it was created, the position has remained vacant longer than it’s been filled which, according to Gremillion and other food safety advocates, has affected the agency’s ability to advocate for public health.

“I think that FSIS would be more aggressively and effectively protecting public health under a qualified [under secretary] for food safety,” said Gremillion in an email to IEG Policy on Tuesday. “A good concrete example of how leadership can make a difference at the [under secretary] position is Mike Taylor declaring E. coli O157: H7 an adulterant during his tenure.”

Stepping in after the deadly 1992-93 Jack-in-the-Box outbreak, Taylor ruled that a pathogen, E. coli O157:H7, was an adulterant in meat. He has also been credited for what advocates say was the “heroic accomplishment” of implementing a new, science-based approach, Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP), to safety standards in meat and poultry over objections from industry.

While the under secretary for food safety can be an agent for change, the current setup at USDA does not allow for that to take place, Gremillion said.

After Hagan left federal government in 2013, the Obama administration left the food safety under secretary position open and instead split responsibilities of the position among the FSIS longtime administrator, Al Almanza and Ronholm, who was serving as Hagan’s deputy.

In the absence of an appointed under secretary now, two career employees serve as the top-ranking officials at FSIS. Since August, Carmen Rottenberg has served as acting deputy under secretary for FSIS, while Paul Kiecker, a 29-year FSIS employee is acting FSIS administrator.

“Carmen and Paul are well-qualified, hardworking public servants, but to push back against the torrent of industry pressure to loosen restrictions and externalize the costs of foodborne illness onto consumers, FSIS needs someone with a strong commitment to protecting public health, the expertise necessary to guide the policies and programs carried out by FSIS, and a record of working effectively to find new ways to reduce foodborne illness,” Gremillion wrote.

“The advantage of having an actual person in the position is accountability,” he added. “I think that responsibility has pushed most of the past under secretaries to take at least some consumer friendly actions, like setting new performance standards for chicken parts (Hagen), or reforming how recall announcements are made to better inform consumers (Raymond).”

Bob Hibbert, a partner at the law firm Morgan, Lewis and Bockius, LLP and former USDA senior attorney, agrees. 

"As a structural, flow chart matter, one relevant detail is the fact that, unlike most government positions at this level, the Under Secretary for Food Safety has only one agency – FSIS  - reporting to him/her.  So arguably the Under Secretary and the FSIS Administrator have the same job.  It has essentially worked that way with Mr. Almanza and others in the past," Hibbert wrote in an email to IEG Policy.

"That said, in my opinion the system would probably work best if people were aligned consistent with the way it was designed, with a political appointee as Under Secretary and experienced career official functioning as Administrator.  And – this is in no way a criticism of any current officials – it also works better when people are placed in permanent, versus acting positions."

Candidates for the job begin to emerge

While the Trump administration has gone for a while without formally expressing interest in filling the under secretary for food safety position, that may be changing.

According to a report in Food Safety News last week, two potential candidates are being considered for the position – Mindy Brashears, the director of the International Center for Food Industry at Texas Tech University, and veterinarian Christine Hoang, who is the assistant director of the Division of Animal and Public Health of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).

Hoang on Tuesday (Oct. 31) told IEG Policy that she had been asked to seek the nomination by a number of supporters – including Congressmen and industry groups - which have been lobbying on her behalf.  

“The National Association of Federal Veterinarians has been leading the effort,” Hoang wrote in the email.

An expert on antimicrobials, Hoang holds a public health certification by the National Board of Public Health Examiners and in 2013 was honored by the American Association of Food Safety Veterinarians as the 2013 Food Safety Veterinarian of the year, an honor that recognizes champions for safe food production.

“We are currently in a unique situation with no under secretary, and only an acting deputy under secretary and acting administrator and operating with existing regulations without the ability to  truly impact the 'how,' which could mean eliminating redundancies, streamlining functionality, and fostering innovation,” Hoang told IEG Policy.  “Filling those positions (as well as the many other vacant food safety positions at FSIS) would allow for enhancement of food safety, rather than only maintaining critical functions and 'keeping the lights on,' so to speak.”

An under secretary for food safety, Hoang said, should be doing more than keeping the lights on and must work to leverage the nation’s “incomparable agricultural wealth” to compete globally.

“From my perspective as a food Animal and public Health veterinarian, I believe any candidate being considered should be able to understand the need for a “surgical approach in field conditions,” recognizing and working with real world conditions and constraints while integrating scientific knowledge and then implementing with strategic precision,” she said.

Brashears, the other possible candidate for the job, came into the public eye last year when she testified as an expert witness for Beef Products Inc. in a closely watched defamation suit against the ABC television network. The lawsuit centered on the company’s signature product, a lean finely textured beef, which the network had dubbed “pink slime.” The suit was settled in June, according to Reuters.

Brashears told the jury that BPI’s product is 100% beef and entirely safe to consume, local media reported.

Additionally, Brashears has conducted research on interventions in pre-and post-harvest environments and on the emergence of antimicrobial drug resistance. Her work has also resulted in the commercialization of pre-harvest feed additives that reduce E. coli and Salmonella in cattle.

Brashears did not return a request for comment on Tuesday.

For now, however, it remains unclear if the administration would bring up additional candidates for the position.

Tony Corbo, a senior lobbyist with Food and Water Watch, said he does not have an in-depth knowledge of the candidates and their priorities, but noted that based on her involvement in the BPI case, Brashears will likely bring in a more industry-friendly perspective. Hoang, on the other hand, appears to be more neutral, Corbo said.

And like Gremillion, he also stressed that it is crucial for an under secretary to be appointed to the position as quickly as possible. The USDA has already started working on its fiscal 2019 budget, and because the Congress confirmation process takes so long, it is highly possible that the agency would submit yet another budget request without input from an under secretary for food safety, Corbo said.

“This is the highest ranking [food safety] position in the government,” he said. “You really need somebody there who really understands the nuts and bolts of food safety.”

Because of its sensitive nature, it has been hard to find the right candidate for the food safety under secretary position, said Richard Raymond, who served as USDA under secretary for food safety during the George W. Bush Administration.

“You have got have somebody that both the industry and consumers agree to like, to get a Senate confirmation,” he said. “It’s tough to find people like that.”

And in this administration, finding a person for this USDA job has been a low priority, he said.

Having a person in the position, however, is important because it allows the agency to invest time and resources in major, overreaching changes that could benefit the agency and public health for year to come, he noted. USDA, for example, could have never moved forward with the HIMP inspection program, if Hagan had not been under secretary at the time, Raymond said.  


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