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USDA’s acting officials use face time to promote agency agenda

Meeting with people outside the federal government usually means hearing about somebody’s else’s agenda, but USDA’s top food safety officials apparently think it can be a two-way street.

During this past December and January, Carmen Rottenberg and Paul Kiecker have used their meetings with outside parties to promote USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) agenda with influential people.

Rottenberg and Kiecker, who respectively are the acting deputy Under Secretary and acting FSIS administrator, are not operating with the hesitancy that often marks those in temporary leadership jobs. The public calendar published by FSIS shows Rottenberg and Kiecker are scheduling their face time to advance the agency’s agenda.

The proposed rule for Swine Slaughter Modernization and a controversial National Chicken Council petition about line speeds both caused the agency leaders to direct some traffic their way. From mid-to-late January, Rottenberg brought in a literal “Who’s Who” in agricultural media to talk about the swine rule. Included in her meetings were:

  • David Pitts, Associated Press
  • Gary Crawford, USDA Radio
  • Ingrid Mezo, Chemical News
  • Jacob Bunge, The Wall Street Journal
  • Mike Davis, Southern Farm Network
  • Amy Mayer, Iowa Public Radio
  • John Hult, Sioux Falls Argus Leader
  • Stephanie Ho, USDA Radio
  • Joe Fisher, Northwest Iowa Review
  • Eleanor Goldberg, Huffington Post
  • Chabella Guzman, KNEB
  • Keith Loria, Food Quality, and Safety Magazine
  • Patrick McGroarty, The Wall Street Journal

As the ag media meetings continued, the agency proposed a rule to amend the federal meat inspection regulations to establish a new voluntary inspection system for market hog slaughter establishments called the New Swine Slaughter Inspection System (NSIS), while also requiring additional pathogen sampling for all swine slaughter establishments.

“FSIS is excited to continue modernizing inspection practices while allowing opportunities for industry to innovate and streamline food production,” Rottenberg said when the announcement was made.

“There is no single technology or process to address the problem of foodborne illness, but when we focus our inspections on food safety-related tasks, we better protect American families.”

The media meetings continued, with Kiecker attending some, when the chicken line speeds were on the agenda. Included in those meetings were:

  • Nicole Erwin, Ohio Valley ReSource
  • Alan Bjerga, Bloomberg
  • Ingrid Mezo, Food Chemical News
  • Rita Jane Gabbett, Meatingplace
  • Danielle Ivory, The New York Times
  • Christine Haughney, Politico

Following those meetings, FSIS in early February denied the National Chicken Council petition to remove the 140 birds per minute (BPM) speed limit for some chicken slaughter plants. FSIS did so it has found inspectors can conduct an adequate inspection of each carcass at line speeds of up to 175 bmp. The chicken council, however, failed to include proper data inspections could occur with higher line speeds, and FSIS said it did not expect to grant any waivers from existing policy.

Rottenberg and Kiecker did their regular separate sessions with consumer representatives in both December and January. The practice of releasing attendance lists for these meetings, however, has ended.

Rottenberg and Kiecker also met in December with outside parties on Codex, Salmonella Performance Standards, Catfish inspection and equivalency, and food safety education. Other meetings in January ran the gamut from Romania pork imports to the Netherlands’ eggs.

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