The Trump administration’s freeze on filling vacant federal government positions, announced in January, was having a negative effect on USDA’s FSIS. According to a Jan. 18, 2017 internal message sent to FSIS staffers, the staffing freeze would delay tests of pathology samples submitted to the FSIS lab system for analysis. “AMR-01 and rush cases will be given priority status,” the memo stated, “however, turnaround times and expected to be delayed by at least 24 hours on these samples.” Resolving the matter would depend on staffing of key positions, it added.
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But administration staffing at the most senior levels is also causing some concern. Sonny Perdue, Trump’s choice to lead the USDA, was governor of Georgia in 2008 and 2009 when the Peanut Corp. of America Salmonella outbreak occurred, which killed nine people and sickened at least 714 others across 46 states. Two years earlier, under Perdue, Georgia had slashed its food safety budget by 29 percent. The FDA had delegated inspection responsibility to the state, and state officials later said that shortfalls in manpower and funding had hindered their ability to adequately inspect the company.
In March, Trump nominated Dr. Gottlieb to head the FDA. A former deputy FDA commissioner for medical and scientific affairs (2005-2007), Dr. Gottlieb’s experience has been mainly with pharmaceutical discovery, development, and drug approval policies, including design of and requirements for human clinical trials. The extent to which he might be directly involved in the agency’s food portfolio remains unclear, although some previous FDA commissioners had largely delegated food responsibilities to their deputies.