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The Seven Most Powerful In Federal Food Safety

When looking at a maze of federal agencies, be it the “intelligence community” or our nation’s food safety mechanism, it is easy to forget that it is the individuals that actually count.  Multiple agencies housed across different departments are characteristics of both the intelligence and food safety bureaucracies.

In every administration, however, there is only one President.  He wants the people he has put in place to lead the “food safety community” to make all those agencies work in concert.   When they don’t, the President is the one who will look stupid.  (“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”)

While dozens of people are in food safety leadership positions in the federal government, we are going to look at the handful of individuals who President Obama would most likely to call if the White House doctor ever tells him at 3 o’clock in the morning that Malia or Sasha has suffered a food borne illness.

Department Secretaries Tom Vilsack (Agriculture) and Kathleen Sebelius (Health & Human Services) would top the list.  There are seven agencies with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that have food safety responsibilities.

By far the most important of the USDA agencies is the Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS).  Jerold Mande was appointed by the President to work there as “deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety.”  He is third on our list.   No Under Secretary has yet been appointed.

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) with important sub-agencies of its own is housed within the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS).  The FDA Commissioner, Dr. Margaret Hamburg, is fourth on our list.   Fifth is her “senior advisor” Michael R. Taylor.   Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, FDA’s Principal Deputy Commissioner, is sixth.

Director Thomas R. Frieden at the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) is the seventh.

TOM VILSACK

Adopted from a Catholic orphanage in Pittsburgh, education was Vilsack’s ticket out of steel city.  After graduating from the Albany Law School, he became a law partner with his father-in-law in Mount Pleasant, Iowa.

Vilsack’s route into politics was an unusual one.   Mount Pleasant Mayor Ed King was killed during a City Council meeting, and Vilsack agreed to take on the job.  Next was the State Senate.   In 1998, he was elected by a slim margin as the first Democratic Governor of Iowa and easily re-elected four years later.

As governor, Vilsack was probably best known for his “Vision Iowa” and “Iowa Values Fund” to promote economic development and increase better-paying jobs.

He fought to maintain the use of eminent domain for development projects, but lost the issue when the GOP-dominated Iowa Legislature over-turned his veto.  He was more successful in using his item veto powers to get his way on economic development funding.

Gov. Vilsack briefly ran for President early in the 2008 cycle, and endorsed Hillary Clinton after he dropped out.  His appointment by President Obama to become the 30th Secretary of Agriculture gained the unanimous consent of the U.S Senate and he was sworn into the office on Jan. 21, 2009.

At USDA’s helm, Secretary Vilsack is co-chair of the President’s Food Safety Working Group, a multi agency panel charged with upgrading the U.S. food safety system. The position of USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety, the official responsible for running FSIS, has not been filled.  (Ron Hicks, a high official in the FSIS career service has been acting in the position since Jan. 23rd.)

KATHLEEN SEBELIUS

Kathleen Sebelius was, probably, a political orphan.  Her father, John C. Gilligan, served in Congress and was Governor of Ohio when she was growing up in Cincinnati.  He was always up against names like Taft and Rhodes, long-time GOP political powers in the Buckeye State.

How much time the busy Ohio politician had for his daughter is unknown.  However, when she was elected Governor of Kansas in 2002, together they became the first father/daughter pair to ever both serve as governors in U.S. history.

Gov. Sebelius established her roots in the Sunflower State in 1974, after graduating from Trinity Washington University in Washington D.C.  She proceeded to get a Master’s in Public Administration from the University of Kansas.

She headed up the Kansas Trial Lawyers Association for almost a decade before getting herself elected to the Kansas House of Representatives.  After four terms in the lower house, she won her first statewide election as Kansas Insurance Commissioner.

As Insurance Commissioner, Sebelius got credit for blocking the sale of Kansas Blue Cross/Blue Shield to a for-profit Indiana health concern.  She also turned the office into an advocate for senior citizens and other consumers.

Twice elected as Governor of Kansas, Sebelius focused on economic development, education, and health care.   She promoted childhood immunizations and expanding enrollments in children’s health care.   Time magazine listed her as one of the nation’s top five governors in 2005, and she was often mentioned as a possible candidate for Vice President.

Gov. Sebelius was President Obama’s second choice to head HHS.   Her appointment followed the withdrawal of former Senate Democratic Leader Thomas Daschle, who ran into significant tax problems.

Prior to her confirmation, Gov. Sebelius amended some of her family’s past income tax statements and paid about $8,000 in back taxes.   Her 65-31 confirmation was probably had more to do with her association with Dr. George Tiller, the Wichita late-term abortion doctor who was assassinated at his church on May 31, 2009.

Gov. Sebelius said Dr. Tiller had contributed $12,450 to her campaigns betweens 1994 and 2001.  The Associated Press claimed another $23,000 was contributed to a political action committee controlled by Sebelius when she was Insurance Commissioner.

She was sworn in as the 21st Secretary of HHS on April 23, 2009, taking command of one of the largest civilian departments in the federal government with 67,000 employees.

Secretary Sebelius immediately joined Vilsack as a co-chair of the President’s Food Safety Working Group.  With issues like Swine Flu and Health Insurance Reform also on her plate, Secretary Sebelius will likely take her cues from the pros that work for her at FDA.

JEROLD MANDE

Back at USDA, there is not a permanent Under Secretary for Food Safety, but there is a Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety and his name is Jerold Mande.

Mande was a health policy advisor in the Clinton White House, where he worked on food safety, tobacco control, and cancer initiatives.   He helped expand FoodNet and PulseNet.   From the White House, he went on to positions in both the Department of Labor and FDA.   He led the design of the “Nutrition Facts” food label.

Mande first worked on food safety issues as a congressional staffer.   He holds a Masters Degree in Public Health.  After government service, he was working as Associate Director of Public Policy for the Yale Cancer Center.

The curious thing about his appointment as deputy was the statement by Secretary Vilsack that “Mande will have responsibility for the Food Safety and Inspection Service.”   No mention was made of the fact that Ron Hicks, a career service executive, is serving as acting Under Se
cretary for Food Safety.
“Jerold Mande, ” said Secretary Vilsack, ” brings years of experience in health, nutrition and epidemiology, food safety, and public policy in both government and academia that will greatly serve USDA and the public as we continue to work to protect public health,”

Mande is important now, and probably will remain so if a permanent Under Secretary is ever appointed.

DR. MARGARET HAMBURG

When Rudolph Giuliani took over as Mayor of New York City, former Mayor David Dinkins’ appointments quickly found themselves without jobs.

But not Dr. Margaret Hamburg.   New York’s Public Health Commissioner for most of the 1990s was too important to the Big Apple.   Her work to control tuberculosis and expand child immunizations was the kind of action any big city Mayor would love.  She cut New York’s TB rate almost in half.

When she left New York City, it was to work on bioterrorism and pandemic flu strategies as the Assistant Secretary for Policy and Evaluation at HHS at the request of President Clinton.

Since 2001, Dr. Hamburg was Vice President for Biological Programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a foundation that works to lessen threats from nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.  In 2005, she became the Initiatives Senior Scientist.

Dr. Hamburg graduated from the Harvard Medical School, and completed her residency in internal medicine at what is now New York Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Cornell Medical Center.

She gained a unanimous confirmation vote from the U.S. Senate and was sworn in as the 21st Commissioner of Food and Drugs on May 18, 2009.

MICHAEL R. TAYLOR

Michael R. Taylor, a lawyer, is senior advisor to Commissioner Hamburg.  He may also be the President’s food safety Czar.

Taylor previously worked for the federal government for 20+ years, starting out as a litigating attorney at FDA and ending up as USDA’s Acting Under Secretary for Food Safety.

When he last left the federal government, however, Taylor made himself forever controversial in some quarters.  He was Vice President for Public Policy at Monsanto Corp. from 1998 until 2001.

He comes in for criticism over “the revolving door” between industry and government, but the real beef some have with Taylor is his bent for policies favoring biotechnology.

Taylor left the corporate world for the academic, joining the faculty at George Washington University’s School of Public Health and Health Services as a research professor.

In announcing his appointment, no mention was made of his “Czar” status, but Hamburg said Taylor would work to:

  • Assess current food program challenges and opportunities
  • Identify capacity needs and regulatory priorities
  • Develop plans for allocating fiscal year 2010 resources
  • Develop the FDA’s budget request for 2011.
  • Plan implementation of new food safety legislation.

Taylor is back.  The President put him there.  He reports directly to the FDA Commissioner.  He is the one testifying before Congress.

Taylor recently told Congress preventing harm to consumers is “our first priority.”  He said federal food safety was shifting from “reacting to problems” to “preventing harm in the first place.”

JOSHUA M. SHARFSTEIN

The former Commissioner of Health for the City of Baltimore was put in charge of the transition for the Obama Administration.

The President then appointed Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein as FDA’s principal Deputy Commissioner.  He served as Acting FDA Commissioner until Dr. Hamburg took office on May 25, 2009.

It was Dr. Sharfstein who did not wait until someone got sick from Salmonella before demanding recalls of all products made with suspect pistachios.

While serving in Baltimore, Dr. Sharfstein was named Public Official of the Year by Governing Magazine.  His efforts to expand literacy, improve pediatric primary care, increase influenza vaccinations for health care workers, expand treatment for opioid addiction, and move disabled adults into Medicare Part D were among his achievements in Baltimore.

He is also a former Congressional staff member, having worked for Rep. Henry Waxman on the Government Reform Committee.

Dr. Sharfstein graduated from both Harvard College and the Harvard Medical School, did his residency in a combined pediatrics program at Boston Children’s Hospital and Boston Medical Center.  He is also a 2001 graduate of the fellowship in general pediatrics at the Boston University School of Medicine.

THOMAS R. FRIEDEN

Dr. Thomas R. Frieden is the immediate past Commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, a $1.7 billion agency with 6,000 employees.

As Commissioner, Dr. Frieden was known for efforts to reduce smoking, ban trans-fats from restaurants, require public posting of calorie information, and monitoring the diabetes epidemic.  He also established the largest community electronic health records project in the country.

Dr. Frieden is both Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Administrator of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).

His taking over CDC is a return engagement for Dr. Frieden.  He was at CDC from 1990 to 2002.  He first worked in the Epidemiologic Intelligence Service (EIS).  He led a CDC project that helped rapidly reduce TB rates in New York City.

From 1992-1996, Dr. Frieden also served as Director of the Bureau of Tuberculosis Control and Assistant Commissioner (for Dr. Hamburg) of the New York City Health Department.

Dr. Frieden speaks Spanish.  He graduated from Oberlin College and received both his MD and Master’s of Public Health Degree from Columbia University.  He also completed infectious disease training at Yale University.

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