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Letter from the Editor: Dr. Hagen

It might exist.  

But I have not seen any informed speculation on why President Obama opted to make a controversial “recess” appointment of Dr. Elisabeth Hagen as the new Under Secretary for Food Safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

usda-fsis-nomination-featured.jpgSo, join me in some uninformed


Let’s recap what we do know.  Dr. Richard Raymond, the last “Senate confirmed” Under Secretary for Food Safety, made his escape to northern Colorado in October 2008.

Obama became President in January 2009, but did not nominate Hagen until one year and a week later in January 2010.  Hagen did not clear the Senate Agriculture Committee until June 30.  

Why it took Obama so long to make the nomination probably won’t be known until somebody in the know quits and writes a book.  Ag Committee Chairwoman Blanche Lincoln, D-AR, is trying to get through a tough re-election year, and Dr. Hagen’s confirmation was not much of a priority for her.

Still, Hagen had cleared the committee and was ready for vote on the floor of the Senate. There is nothing about her nomination that is controversial.  She is highly qualified.  She has never dated a Cuban spy or anything remotely like that.

The fact that recess appointments almost always have some element of controversy about them, and the fact that this one has none is what makes it perplexing.  But, I think I know why this is happening–eggs.   

With the U.S. Food and Drug Administration activating its emergency response center to manage the largest shell egg recall in history, it was not a good time to have no leadership at USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Eggs are one of those food items that illustrate the dichotomy of the federal government’s food safety scheme.  FSIS and FDA both are responsible for the safety of eggs.

One Congresswoman explains.

“This urgent nationwide recall is very disturbing, not only because it appears to have been preventable, but it also may have been the result of an inefficient and unresponsive food safety system,” said Congresswoman Rosa L. DeLauro, D-CT.  “Given the split jurisdiction between FDA and USDA over ensuring the safety of eggs, I fear the investigation and subsequent recall may have been delayed as FDA traced the source of the contamination.

“Because USDA is responsible for egg safety at processing plants, it is troubling that FDA is the lead agency in this investigation even though it has never inspected the Wright County Egg facility.  Instead of reinforcing each other’s work, the current food safety system of split jurisdiction appears to have resulted in a disjointed inspection process.”

USDA  is charged with food safety at the so-called “breaker plants” or egg product processing facilities.  FDA is responsible for shell egg safety and egg products shipped from breaker facilities.

And pretty soon, there’s going to be some explaining to do about the mess we are in with eggs.  This is not just a mammoth food recall; it is easy to make the case statistically that it’s already made thousands of people sick.

So eggs got Hagen her recess appointment.  The egg crisis is the reason for the recess appointment, and can be the reason for the Senate to quickly finish the job by confirming the appointment and then passing a food safety bill.

Without Senate confirmation, a recess appointment cannot continue after the current Congress adjourns.  FSIS needs a leader with some staying power.

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