In reacting to Friday’s announcement that Dr. Elisabeth Hagen will resign her position as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s under secretary for food safety in December, food-safety experts, industry associations, consumer advocates and members of Congress have largely praised her tenure.
In the USDA statement issued Friday, Hagen said that she will be entering the private sector after what she called “an ambitious three years.”
She was sworn in as the highest food-safety official in the federal government in August 2010. Before that, she had served in a number of leadership roles at USDA, including as the agency’s chief medical officer and in the Food Safety and Inspection Service’s Office of Public Health Science.
Many of the sources Food Safety News spoke to praised Hagen’s achievements — specifically her work regarding E. coli strains and mechanically tenderized beef labeling.
“She declared six additional strains of E. coli as adulterants, which was an important step to prevent illnesses from E. coli,” said Chris Waldrop, director of the Consumer Federation of America’s Food Policy Institute. “She updated Salmonella performance standards for poultry and put forward the first-ever standard for Campylobacter. And she proposed labeling of mechanically tenderized meat, which consumer groups had urged for a number of years.”
Food-safety lawyer Bill Marler, whose law firm underwrites Food Safety News, said that Hagen “always knew that her job was one deeply rooted in the health of the consumers of the products she regulated” and that she will be “sorely missed.”
That sentiment was echoed by Michael Taylor, U.S. Food and Drug Administration deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine.
“Dr. Hagen has been a great colleague and friend during her time at USDA,” Taylor said. “Her steadfast commitment to public health has made a big difference for food safety. I know she’ll be missed.”
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) referred to Hagen’s time in the position as “a momentous job” and said she appreciated that the under secretary “was always responsive and forthright in our dealings.”
DeLauro added that she urges the administration to move quickly in appointing Hagen’s successor, possibly referring to the months it took for President Obama to appoint Hagen and for Congress to confirm her nomination.
Leaders of industry associations praised Hagen’s commitment to improving food safety and her ability to engage with them openly, and they wished her the best moving forward.
Mike Satzow, board co-chair of the North American Meat Association, said that Hagen “challenged the industry to develop new processes that have resulted in safer foods being placed on our tables.” The president of the National Chicken Council, Mike Brown, said she has been “a true advocate for science-based regulatory policy.”
“During her tenure as under secretary, we have appreciated the open dialogue she has maintained with us about critical issues,” said American Meat Institute president J. Patrick Boyle. “While we haven’t always agreed on policies, we’ve shared a common goal: to maintain the United States’ role as producer of the safest meat and poultry supply in the world.”
While the National Chicken Council’s Brown praised Hagen’s work in “modernizing the poultry inspection system,” others were critical of the new inspection program, the HACCP Based Inspection Models Project, also known as HIMP.
“Dr. Hagen did make substantive changes to some key food-safety policies, but we are extremely disappointed that she seemed to be the main driver of changing poultry inspection, where the companies essentially will police themselves,” said Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist for the food campaign at Food & Water Watch. He had called for Hagen’s resignation, along with the rest of FSIS leadership, in August.
“While they keep claiming that this is going to reduce levels of Salmonella and Campylobacter, the consumer groups have been united in asking the agency to withdraw the proposal because we didn’t see that as the outcome,” Corbo said.
In addition to praising several of her accomplishments, Waldrop of the Consumer Federation of America also noted that his organization disagreed with Hagen’s plan for changing poultry slaughter and reducing agency oversight of foreign countries.
A former under secretary for food safety, Dr. Richard Raymond, told Food Safety News editor Dan Flynn that it’s “an incredibly hard job for which there is very little reward or thanks.”
In addition, he said Hagen has a young family, while he held the post during a time when his children were adults, making him understand how it’s been more difficult for her than it was for him. Still, Raymond said, “She lasted longer than I did.”
“Dr. Hagen has filled an extremely difficult role with technical skill and grace,” said Dave Theno, CEO of food safety consultancy firm Gray Dog Partners and former senior vice president and chief food safety officer for Jack in the Box. “Dr. E, as I often call her, has stayed true to her passion for making the American food supply safer every day and, as a result, the food supply is safer today than the day she assumed her position.
“Now, all that said, her true legacy will be the maturation of all the systems she and her team put in place during her tenure,” Theno added. “Many of these systems are just now starting to demonstrate the results of the changes that she catalyzed in the industry and regulatory world. These systems will continue to evolve and improve.”© Food Safety News