Somebody has finally noticed. In this case, the somebody is Tom Laskawy, a food and environment specialist, and what he has noticed is that President Obama has NOT yet nominated anybody as U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary for Food Safety to run the Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS), the key federal agency for the integrity of meat, poultry and eggs produced by U.S. farmers and ranchers.
Apparently heading up the search for the President is USDA Secretary Thomas Vilsack, former governor of Iowa. Congress Daily Friday reported:
President Obama has not nominated a USDA undersecretary for food safety because the administration has had a hard time finding a candidate who has not engaged in lobbying, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Thursday.
Following testimony before the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee on the fiscal 2010 budget, Vilsack said the administration wants to follow its rule "to make sure people haven’t had lobbying experience" and is thoroughly vetting all candidates.
Lobbyists say it is hard for USDA to fully participate in congressional consideration of the food safety reform and modernization bill without an undersecretary in place. USDA handles food safety for meat, poultry and eggs and the undersecretary for food safety sets policy and handles international food safety issues.
But 48 hours earlier, Mr. Laskawy, writing on the independent Obama Foodorama blog, had raised the possibility that Secretary Vilsack is working on a short list of candidates for the vital safety post that are approved by the meat industry. He wrote:
“It really does seem like Tom Vilsack can’t find anyone to run the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. You wouldn’t think it would be that hard. There must be dozens of scientists and food safety experts who fit the bill. But this, of course, is the USDA we’re talking about — the poster child for regulatory capture, the phenomenon whereby a regulator acts almost entirely in the interests of its target industry rather than in the interests of the public.
“As a result, the head of the FSIS is typically a scientist or doctor with, if not direct ties to the food industry, then at least a career that puts him or her firmly in the industrial food mainstream. For example, the last two heads of FSIS have been Elsa Murano, a Texas A&M scientist who is now that institution’s president and Richard Raymond who, before heading FSIS, was Nebraska’s Chief Medical Officer and a senior official in its Health and Human Services department. While competent officials, these folks are not crusading reformers, which is just the way the food industry likes it.
“Indeed, the word is from within the USDA that, in the wake of the Swine Flu epidemic, USDA Chief Tom Vilsack wants to throw a bone to the livestock industry in particular with the FSIS appointment. Presumably, he’s gotten a shortlist from Big Meat and has been working his way down it. The problem here isn’t that they can’t find a qualified candidate. The problem is that it appears the industry has embraced a particular brand of food safety, with irradiation and chemical treatment of processed meat at its core.”
Mr. Laskawy goes into much more detail, including offering his opinions on which candidates for FSIS chief would be acceptable to the meat industry and which ones would be unacceptable. Check it all out here.
The Undersecretary for Food Safety in USDA is one of a handful of appointments that will shape Obama’s administration when it comes to protecting what consumers eat. The other key spots, CDC Director and FDA Commissioner, are filled with savvy street-smart big city health experts, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden and Dr. Margaret Hamburg. The FSIS vacancy, now going into it sixth month, sadly means the new administration might be less than 100 percent committed to food safety.