It has been over a year since the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has had a Senate-confirmed Under Secretary of Food Safety–a reality that has left many in the food and agriculture world concerned and confused.
The Under Secretary of Food Safety is responsible for directing the programs and policies of the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), the body within the USDA that regulates meat, poultry, and processed egg products, roughly 20 percent of the food supply.
“For many moons insiders and others have been told that an appointment is imminent, yet we still wait. What’s the delay and who will it be?” asked Michael Strauss, a principal at Colorado Boxed Beef and chairman of the North American Meat Processors, on Meatingplace yesterday.
Though the administration continues to look for a candidate, a high-level USDA official downplayed the importance of having a Senate-confirmed under secretary, indicating that USDA leadership has confidence in the progress FSIS is making towards the President’s Food Safety Working Group recommendations.
Strauss, on the other hand, sees a real need for sustained leadership at FSIS.
“Without an undersecretary we’re without a leader at a time when leadership is solely needed and we lack a cohesive strategy for food safety,” said Strauss, who cites a number of pending initiatives that necessitate leadership including bench trim testing, beef carcass irradiation, and “all natural” labeling.
Last June, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack cited conflict-of-interest concerns to explain the delay in selecting a nominee. Vilsack told the Government Executive that the administration “has had a hard time finding a candidate who has not engaged in lobbying.”
Since revelations about vetting hang-ups and the nomination of Jerold Mande as Deputy Under Secretary of Food Safety last July, the USDA has remained largely silent on the the issue.
Lynn Silver, assistant commissioner of the New York City Health Department’s Bureau of Chronic Disease and Prevention, and Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest are rumored to be on top of the administration’s shortlist.