What Now?

Anthrax, foot-and-mouth, mad cow disease, foodborne pathogens and, of course, the ever-present threat that terrorists may attempt to contaminate the nation’s food supply. Ann M. Veneman’s tenure as head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture was certainly a time of extraordinary suspicion about food safety and security. But now, the first woman to ever hold the position, is resigning; a move that has drawn mixed emotions from the agricultural and food quality communities.

“Now is an appropriate time for me to move on to new opportunities,” Veneman says in a recent letter to President Bush.

Alisa Harrison, USDA’s press secretary, later said that Veneman’s decision to leave the post had been reached “in a private process between the secretary and the administration.”

At the time of this report. Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns, a Republican attorney who grew up on an Iowa dairy farm, had been nominated by President Bush to serve as secretary of Agriculture and succeed Veneman.

The nomination, which requires Senate confirmation, reflects the administration’s desire to focus heavily on farm trade over the next four years. Johanns became a lawyer and served in county and city government before becoming mayor of Lincoln, Neb., in 1991. He won the governor’s office in 1998 and in 2002 became the first Republican to win re-election to that office in more than four decades.

Veneman, a peach farmer’s daughter, had a rather turbulent four-year run. Shortly after she took office in 2001, she was praised for her great fortitude when she bolstered inspections and testing that kept the foot-and-mouth outbreak in Europe out of the United States.

A curve ball came later that year with the 2001 anthrax attacks, which unveiled weaknesses in USDA agencies charged with defending against bioterrorism. All of this compounded with the Sept. 11 attacks, which raised concern that perhaps the terrorists would attack the food supply next.

In 2002, Veneman battled breast cancer and went on to see the enactment of a new farm bill, which was penned by a Congress that ignored her proposals. She then brokered agricultural trade spats with Europe, Asia and Brazil.

Another curve ball came last December with the first verified U.S. case of mad cow disease, and even in her departure, the USDA was still grappling with what was presumed to be a second case of the brain wasting disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), which turned out to be a false alarm. [See related story, p. 12]

Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Food Policy Institute of the Consumer Federation of America (Washington, D.C.), has been rather critical of USDA’s handling of the discovery of a cow infected with BSE in the state of Washington earlier this year.

Foreman, however, also praised Veneman, saying “Americans who care about food safety and nutrition will miss Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman.

“I was surprised and sorry to learn she will be leaving; surprised because I thought she had vigorously supported the president and taken a beating for defending the administration on the farm bill [and] sorry because she was always willing to hear our concerns,” Foreman says in an e-mail to Food Quality. “We were excited by her 2003 speech saying it was time to update the “model T” meat inspection law. The meat industry weighed in and killed that pretty quickly.”

Patrick J. Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute (Washington, D.C), says the last 12 months were indeed filled with intense challenges for Veneman.

“She has faced them with vision and commitment. In addition, under Secretary Veneman, USDA’s food safety efforts complemented industry’s own food safety initiatives. The results: Bacteria on raw meat and poultry decreased dramatically and so did many foodborne illnesses,” Boyle says. “She is to be commended for this outstanding record and her tireless efforts on behalf of U.S. agriculture.”

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