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Former Under Secretary For Food Safety Speaks Up

President Obama is too prone to making inflammatory remarks about food safety and it is “unnatural” to go this long without a “Senate-confirmed” Under Secretary for Food Safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

richard-raymond.jpgSo says the soft-spoken country doctor who until a year ago held USDA’s top food safety job under Secretaries of Agriculture Mike Johanns and Ed Shafer in the Bush Administration.

“You can look back in history and it’s never taken this long for a new administration to name someone to the second most important job at USDA after the Secretary,” says Dr. Richard Raymond, who retired as Under Secretary for Food Safety a year ago this month.

The Obama Administration has not yet nominated a replacement, leaving USDA’s Food Safety & Inspection Service in the hands of acting Under Secretary, Ron Hicks, and newly named deputy Under Secretary, Jerold Mande.  Neither the acting or deputy jobs require Senate confirmation.

Raymond also finds the lack of transparency in the President’s Food Safety Group troubling.   “You cannot even find out who is on the darn thing,” he says.

It was in launching the President’s Food Safety Group that Obama made statements that really irked Raymond because they left the impression that food safety is getting worse, not better.

Raymond was really bothered when he heard the President say “something like our food safety system is a threat to our health.”   He called those kinds of statements “inflammatory” and creating the sense of a “false crisis.”

“There are plenty of reasons to be for food safety changes without resorting to lying about it,” Raymond says.  “Nobody gives the agencies or industry credit for what has been accomplished.”

Nebraska’s former chief medical officer can reel off data that demonstrate his point, including the actual decline in illnesses from several of the major foodborne pathogens.

He even takes on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 10-year old estimate that each year 76 million Americans become ill with a foodborne illness, 325,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 die.  Raymond says it is really just a statistic model that includes 52 million cases of norovirus, which can involve food but is typically spread by contact.

Raymond says whoever cuts those norovirus numbers from the CDC model will look like a food safety hero, but really nothing will have changed.

In addition to wanting the food safety community to begin using real numbers, Raymond says we should expect more transparency out of USDA, FDA, and policy-changing efforts like the President’s Food Safety Working Group.

Raymond says what the public knows about the President’ s Food Safety Working Group is pretty sketchy.  He says no one knows who they are–only what they are taking credit for.

Several of the “long over-due actions” Obama said came out of his food safety group were actually initiated by the Bush Administration and just took that long to get through the federal government’s rule-making processes.

Nevertheless, he says, Obama announced the changes in policy to control Salmonella in eggs and increase sampling for E. coli O157:H7 “like they are whole new ideas.”

What Raymond fears are food safety changes that will actually set back the agencies from doing their jobs.   He says “mandatory recalls” will not move with the speed FSIS and FDA achieve with the existing “voluntary recall” policy because companies will be given process rights that might even mean going before a federal judge before something happens.

At FSIS, Raymond said the recall team makes a recommendation based on the science.  Once the recommendation for a voluntary recall is made, he says it happens within hours–even if the company’s lawyers get involved.  If a company refused recall its product, FSIS could stop their sales by pulling inspectors from the plant.

Raymond favors “inspection based on risk” and he fears politically set inspection levels for all.  In other words, he thinks the agencies should be able to focus their resources on “the bottom feeders,” instead of spending the same about on the very good and very bad.  “If you want to catch drunk drivers, you will do better setting up outside the bars on Saturday night than outside the church on Sunday morning,” he quips.

Worse yet, says Raymond, are inspections mandated by Congress that has nothing to do with food safety and everything to do with protectionism.   He points to the inclusion of “catfish slaughtering” to FSIS duties as an example.  It is a move that blocks Chinese-raised Catfish from the U.S. market unless and until China imposes an equivalent “daily inspection of Catfish slaughter.”

Raymond moved from the Washington, D.C. area, not back to his native Nebraska, but to Windsor, CO to be near his grandchildren and to enjoy the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains.  “I’ve put an awfully lot of time into losing 20 pounds,” he says.

He’s put together an interesting mix of academic, state government, and business consulting assignments in food safety.  He is on the Board of Trustees for the International Life Sciences Institute NA and serves as an affiliate professor at Colorado State University.

Raymond’s interests include low dose x-ray technology that could be added to the whole carcass line of a beef plant, eliminating E. coli O157:H7 on the animal’s exterior without changing the texture of the meat.   From what he’s seen it could dramatically cut down on E. coli infections.

When he was Under Secretary of Food Safety, Raymond’s friends back at the Nebraska Department of Health began reporting to him on the prevalence of Non-O157:H7 Shiga toxin-producing E. coli.  These also cause human illnesses, but unlike O157:H7 are not currently considered an adulterant in meat.

On the basis of research by other states he’s seen since, Raymond says: “I feel it is silly not to decide it’s an adulterant.”

Dr. Raymond also volunteers one day at week at his local hospital.  But less you think it was too long ago that he left his rural family practice for government service to now be treating patients again, Dr. Raymond is the one driving the golf cart, taking hospital visitors from the parking lot to the hospital’s front door.

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