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Will USDA’s Food Safety Agency Ever Have a Leader?

Food Safety News reported that there is no timetable for moving the nomination of Elisabeth Hagen to the Senate floor. Hagen, currently the chief medical officer at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), is the nominee to lead the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the USDA agency responsible for ensuring the safety of meat and poultry products.

President Obama did not nominate Hagen until Jan. 26, 2010, more than a full year into his term. Then, the Agriculture Committee waited until May 27, another four months, to hold a nomination hearing. Now, the committee will need to hold another hearing to report the nomination to the full Senate.

During the nomination hearing, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), chair of the committee, complained that FSIS had not yet proposed a rule requiring inspection of catfish and defining exactly what species will be treated as catfish. “I believe that this is one of the more pressing food safety concerns that exists right now,” she said. The 2008 Farm Bill requires FSIS to write and enforce catfish regulations. The bill set a final deadline of December 2009, but FSIS has yet to even propose the rule, let alone finalize it.

Lincoln is, quite frankly, full of it. If the catfish inspection rule, or food safety in general, was a priority for Lincoln, she would have moved Hagen’s nomination much more aggressively.

The catfish inspection rule is currently under review at the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA).  FSIS prepared a draft proposal and submitted it to OIRA on Nov. 13, 2009.  OIRA is supposed to spend no more than 120 days reviewing agency drafts, but the rule has now been under review for 201 days and counting.

Inside U.S. Trade (sorry, subscription only) reported earlier this year that the proposal has stalled amid concerns lodged by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, another arm of the White House. USTR is concerned about the rule’s impact on trade and potential costs to importers. Choosing which species will be classified as catfish could also affect trade, because several different types of imported fish species are marketed as catfish in U.S. stores. Needless to say, Congress delegated decisions on the definition and other aspects of the rule to USDA, not USTR or OIRA.

Aside from the trouble surrounding the catfish rule, FSIS has made little progress on its rulemaking agenda, publishing only one proposed rule and no final rules in the last six months. It is safe to assume that FSIS’s ability to write new rules has been severely hampered by its lack of a Senate-confirmed leader.

Why then, would Lincoln stall the confirmation of the one person who could jump start rulemaking at FSIS? A Senate-confirmed leader would be more effective at setting priorities for the agency and more likely to stand up to OIRA and/or USTR if they are indeed holding up the catfish inspection rule.

The Agriculture Committee has only held three hearings in all of 2010, according to its Website, so don’t expect Lincoln to move quickly on the nomination.

Will USDA’s Food Safety Agency Ever Have a Leader? by Matthew Madia originally appeared on OMB Watch Matthew June 3, 2010.  Republished with permission from OMB Watch and the author.

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