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Letter From The Editor: Fill USDA’s top food safety posts now

Opinion

UPDATED: So far,  so good. Secretary Perdue has named, on a temporary basis,  two USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) career employees to the top jobs. Paul Kiecker is acting FSIS administrator and Carmen Rottenberg is acting deputy undersecretary for food safety.

A couple days ago we ran Al Almanza official farewell message. He’s been the indispensable man of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service for the past decade. He’s been the big boss for about 10,000 FSIS meat, egg and poultry inspectors along with the agency’s other personnel. He stepped down as FSIS administrator after 39 years of service.

Almanza’s departure means USDA’s top two food safety jobs are vacant and must be filled. The FSIS administrator — the big boss job — is not a political appointment. The other job, USDA’s under secretary for food safety, is. The president appoints, with the confirmation of the U.S. Senate, the under secretary. It’s an important political job.

It is  the top food safety job, not only at USDA, but within the larger government of the United States, when all the protocol and practical considerations are taken into account. Food safety positions a the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention get lesser titles of “deputy commissioner” and “director” and do not require Senate confirmation.

Congress elevated the top food safety job at USDA to a presidential appointment requiring Senate confirmation for good reason.

The most recent person to serve as USDA under secretary for food safety was Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, USDA’s former chief medial officer. She left the federal government more than three and half years ago.

President Obama and former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack were apparently OK with leaving the office vacant for the last three years of that administration. They did something totally different. In military terms, they gave a “dual hat” to Almanza, making him deputy under secretary for food safety while he continued to run FSIS. Hagen’s deputy, Brian Ronholm, also continued to serve.

The under secretary for food safety reports to the secretary of agriculture and is housed in the Office of Food Safety along with their own deputy or deputies. From there, the under secretary can be a change agent for FSIS.

All four who’ve served as under secretary for food safety made significant contributions. Hagen served from August 2010 to December 2013. The three previous under secretaries were Dr. Richard Raymond from July 2005 to Jan. 2009; Elsa A. Murano from Oct. 2001 to Dec. 2004; and  Dr. Catherine Woteki from July 1997 to Jan. 2001.

During the past three years, when the same person was the big boss at FSIS and serving as deputy to the vacant office of the USDA’s under secretary for food safety, there really isn’t anyone playing the “change agent” or “safety valve” role.

As we’ve reported before, since the law has required the appointment of an under secretary for food safety, but the office has been vacant for almost as much time as there has been someone serving the post. The four under secretaries for food safety each served about 1,250 days.

President Bill Clinton signed the Agriculture Reorganization Act, which mandates the appointment of the USDA under secretary for food safety, on Oct. 19, 1994. That was 8,320 days ago. The four Senate-confirmed under secretaries for food safety served a total of about 5,000 days.

That means in the time since it was created, the job of USDA under secretary for food safety has been vacant for 3,320 days or just more than nine years. In other words, 40 percent of the time there has been no USDA under secretary for food safety. Half of that vacant time was logged during the Obama Administration — about four and a half years.

And it remains vacant with the clock running on the new administration’s watch. We used to think of this solely as a White House problem, but more recently we’ve come to believe that does not explain it. The current administration might not even be aware the USDA under secretary for food safety is a job awaiting presidential appointment.

But the last administration surely knew what it was doing. During three budgets years and God knows how many Farm Bill hearings, we do not recall anyone on the Hill asking why the under secretary for food safety post was going vacant. Had somebody moved a corn row, there probably would have been hearings and calls for an inspector general to investigate.

And you might ask, what’s the harm?

Well, earlier this year folks from FSIS contacted us about the big boss and deputy food safety post and how the lack of the latter has left them without a sounding board for concerns involving Almanza when they did not want to take the extraordinary step of ratcheting up an agency complaint to the level of the secretary of agriculture.

The examples we heard about did not involve food safety, but mostly personnel issues.   While they won’t have Almanza to kick around anymore, they made a cleat point about the need to maintain the posts of FSIS administrator and under secretary for food safety as separate jobs to be done by different individuals.

There are busloads of politicians on the House and Senate agriculture committees, but I am not aware of even one who’s demanded the appointment of an under secretary for food safety be made with all due speed.

Hey, this time it’s only been just short of three years and eight months, with days continue to add up.

President Trump needs to appoint the next USDA under secretary for food safety so confirmation can get underway.

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue needs to make the White House understand this is a priority appointment. If anyone representing establishments regulated by FSIS is lobbying for leaving the under secretary for food safety’s office vacant, Perdue needs to call them out.

Ideally, the new under secretary for food safety will be on board soon enough to participate in the new big boss selection at FSIS.

And, in as much as there is only one Al Almanza, plan to fill these two jobs with two people.

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