(Editorial Update: Soon after this article posted, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced on May 11 the appointment of Carmen Rottenberg as the Administrator of FSIS, Paul Kiecker to the Deputy Administrator position, and Richard Fordyce to serve as Administrator of USDA’s Farm Service Agency.)
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It’s been five years since the U.S. has had someone in the position of Undersecretary for Food Safety with the USDA, but in May, President Donald Trump finally got around to nominating Mindy Brashears, PhD, professor of food safety and director of Texas Tech’s International Center for Food Industry Excellence, to fill the position.
One would think this is a job that there should have been a little more urgency about bringing someone in for, but many experts say the food safety of our nation hasn’t been compromised because of it.
“The people who are down in the trenches are the ones that matter the most and they’re still busting their butts,” says Gary R. Acuff, PhD, professor of food microbiology for Texas A&M University. “It helps to have direction, I’m sure, but what other direction are they going to go? Everyone knows how food safety needs to go.”
Jim Dickson, PhD, a professor in the Department of Animal Science at Iowa State University, notes the position is only responsible for food safety within the USDA, as the FDA is in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and so does not have any direct reporting to the Under Secretary.
“The Under Secretary has the ability to influence food safety within the meat and poultry industry (FSIS) as well as within APHIS,” he says. “However, both FSIS and FDA have tried to coordinate their activities, so FDA, while not officially reporting to the Under Secretary, certainly is interested in any policies from that office.”
It’s at this level that the Under Secretary has the ability to influence policies and directions for current and future food safety initiatives.
An example might be when the Undersecretary decided that an additional set of pathogenic Escherichia coli’s could in fact be declared adulterants, and suggested to FSIS that they move forward with the process.
Still to be Filled
In April, Thomas Shanower was named acting director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and currently, the USDA FSIS has an acting administrator (Paul Kiecker). Both positions will eventually need to find permanent administrators.
Ramkishan Rao, PhD, and a retired national program leader at USDA-NIFA, says these jobs remain vacant in no part to the lack of highly qualified candidates. It’s all about politics.
“There are deep philosophical divides in congress and an administration avert to some traditional processes,” he says. “Interagency collaboration agreements have been developed to working together to address the gaps in food safety. However, it is difficult for the agencies to develop innovative approaches for joint efforts without high-level permanent heads for the agencies.”
While those serving in “acting” positions are more than qualified, Dr. Rao notes these individuals are merely caretakers of the existing establishments.
“They may not be able to make decisions on substantial changes to existing policies, including interagency collaborations,” he says. “In other words, old policies will be status quo.”
Carl Custer, a consultant for food safety microbiology, who retired from the USDA FSIS about a decade ago after 34 years, says it’s important to have strong leaders in charge and not just rely on seat warmers who don’t have much authority.
“If you want science-based food safety, you want people knowledgeable about food production, processing, consumer handling and knowledge, and the strengths and weaknesses of the acts, regulations, and policies,” he explains. “Plus, of course, the science and research programs concerned with those.”
Acuff notes it’s a frustrating situation because if one does need to contact the USDA about a food safety situation, the people you want to talk to are the one’s not there.
“That creates a void and makes it look like there’s no leadership and direction and that they are kind of aimlessly wandering,” he says. “But I think from what I’ve seen—and I’ve been doing this 39 years—things are still moving at about the same speed in the same direction. The issue that slows them down is when the budget isn’t approved, I’ve never really seen a lack of a person shut things down.”