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Needed: Undersecretary for Food Safety at USDA

Recently I wrote a guest blog for Meatingplace.com on the subject of our missing USDA Undersecretary for Food Safety and I’m pleased to expand on that just a bit.

Over a year ago Dr. Richard Raymond retired from USDA, stepping down from the Undersecretary position he held under Bush II and leaving the way clear for then President-Elect Obama to appoint his own to this critical position.  Food safety issues have been talked about as a key issue for the President and shortly into his term he created the President’s Food Safety Working Group – but here we are fourteen months later and still no one has been appointed to lead. 
Without an Undersecretary we are without a leader at a time when leadership is sorely needed and we lack a cohesive strategy for food safety.  And now we have New York Senator Kristin Gillibrand crafting legislation to require increased testing by ground beef processors in an attempt to reign in E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks.  While I wish it were so easy, someone (maybe an Undersecretary for Food Safety?) should explain to the Senator that the type of testing she would require won’t enhance food safety one iota – one cannot test his way to safer foods.
We need someone to put his or her mark on the agency to continue our work in enhancing food safety in the supply chain.  We have many new initiatives in play (bench trim testing and the definition of “natural”, just to name two) and others long stalled and in need of leadership and we need someone at the top to drive these issues.  To Senator Gillibrand’s goal…instead of crafting some ill-conceived legislation that won’t change anything, let’s find someone to direct efforts where they can have an impact: for one, beef carcass irradiation should be defined as a processing aid and not an additive.  Someone very high up at USDA needs to get with someone very high up at FDA and make this happen – and that someone is the Undersecretary (apparently, the President’s Food Safety Working Group can’t get that done!).  Carcass irradiation won’t give us any guarantees in the fight against E. coli O157:H7, but it will have a substantial impact towards defeating this naturally occurring organism. 
Word on the street is that several of the more prominent candidates can’t pass the vetting process, which includes strict constraints on past lobbying efforts.  Did President Obama set that bar too high at the start of his appointment process?  Or is the administration grappling with finding that right balance between consumer activism and real science?  We need to move, quickly, and while I believe there’s a place for activism, I sincerely hope that very soon we will have an appointee who looks to science and not politics for real solutions to real issues.  Like you, I’ll be waiting.

Michael Strauss
Colorado Boxed Beef Company
Chairman, North American Meat Processors Association (NAMP)

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