Brian Ronholm is currently the acting under secretary for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Before going over to USDA, Ronholm was an appropriations staffer for liberal Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT).
DeLauro, who fires critical press releases at food regulators like my fourth-grade class did with spitballs, certainly has not held back on areas involving Ronholm’s acting responsibilities. Maybe he considers it “friendly fire.”
We are, however, approaching a milestone of sorts: Ronholm’s six-month mark on the job as the acting under secretary. Since Dr. Elisabeth Hagen departed in December as the last Senate-confirmed under secretary for food safety (she is now a senior advisor on food safety at Deloitte), Ronholm has held down the fort and taken all the incoming shots from the likes of DeLauro and other critics.
At the beginning of the Obama administration, there were lots of rumors about who was going to be nominated as under secretary for food safety. And it took the then-new president more than a year to make his selection.
This time, we’ve not heard much in the way of speculation, but there was a sign last week that big jobs at USDA are not going to go unfilled indefinitely. President Obama nominated a think-tank scholar to be USDA’s under secretary for rural development.
Upon Senate confirmation, the Aspen Institute’s Lisa Mensah will succeed Midwest corn farmer and agriculture banker Dallas Tonsager, who left USDA on March 27, 2013, and where there’s been a vacancy of at least 14 months.
Those who seem to know that it’s important for USDA to have a Senate-confirmed under secretary for food safety have persuaded us. A Senate-confirmed under secretary for food safety won’t immediately tell the Secretary to go pound sand. But, it’s a simple fact that, on occasion, food safety requires someone with the credentials who can check the power of the White House and/or the Secretary of Agriculture. It’s a reality that exists regardless of which party is in power.
Speaking of power, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is moving through his sixth year on the job and could well be on his way to serving longer in that office than anybody since Orville Freeman, the former Minnesota governor who ran the place in the 1960s under both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.
And it’s not your grandfather’s USDA. It was inspecting meat and eggs in the 1960s, but it was not running social programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and it did not have millions to hand out for crop research, rural development, and all the rest.
I’m not saying whether any of it is right or wrong — just pointing out the reality that more and more constituencies have a reason to kiss the Secretary of Agriculture’s ring.
An under secretary for food safety has existed at USDA since the department’s last big reorganization 20 years ago. Four Senate-confirmed under secretaries have held the post since then, each serving the same fairly tight timeframe of about three-and-a-quarter years.
A new president will take office 985 days from today. If President Obama moves quickly, his second nominee for USDA under secretary for food safety will have enough time to be confirmed by the Senate and serve something close to a “normal” term.
Wanting the office of the under secretary to be filled swiftly does not mean we have anything at all against Brian Ronholm. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is being well-served by Ronholm’s interim leadership. We need a “rock star” nomination for under secretary for food safety. Now.© Food Safety News