The White House announced yesterday that President Obama intends to nominate Dr. Elisabeth Hagen as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Under Secretary for Food Safety, a post charged with overseeing the safety of meat, poultry and egg products at the agency’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which has been leaderless for over a year.

Dr. Hagen is currently the USDA’s Chief Medical Officer, serving as an advisor to the agency on a wide range of human health issues. Prior to her current post, she was a senior executive at FSIS, where she, according to the agency, she “played a key role in developing and executing the agency’s scientific and public health agendas.” 

“There is no more fundamental function of government than protecting consumers from harm, which is why food safety is one of USDA’s top priorities,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, in a statement yesterday. “We can and must do a better job of ensuring the safety of meat and poultry products regulated by USDA, and Dr. Hagen brings the background, skills, and vision to lead USDA’s efforts to make sure that Americans have access to a safe and healthy food supply.”

“This announcement has been long-awaited by myself and others concerned with food safety issues,” said Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), an outspoken advocate for more stringent food regulation, in reaction to the news.  

DeLauro, and many others in the food world, had been publicly calling on the Administration to nominate someone to the post for several months.

“As I noted recently, there have been a number of significant recalls involving meat products this year. The Undersecretary for Food Safety position at USDA requires a deep breadth of knowledge of meat and poultry issues, and a strong understanding of the concept of how to build a new inspection program,”  said DeLauro.  

“The position also requires strong leadership abilities and demonstrated creativity of what should be happening to improve the safety of meat and poultry products. There is a lot to be done, and a long way to go in making our food safety system the best that it can possibly be, and I look forward to working with Dr. Hagen to accomplish critical food safety goals,” added the Congresswoman.

Carol Tucker-Foreman, a distinguished fellow at The Food Policy Institute at Consumer Federation of America, responded to the announcement with guarded optimism. 

“Consumer advocates who work closely with the FSIS on policy issues have had limited direct experience with Dr. Hagen. We have been told, however, that she has been a strong advocate for improved food safety policies and has urged the agency to be more aggressive in asking companies to initiate recalls,” said Tucker-Foreman, who emphasized that there was much work to be done.

“There has been no consistent decline in recalls, illnesses or deaths in six years. From the beginning of the Obama Administration we have urged that the food safety initiative include modernizing this program,” said Tucker-Foreman. “We look forward to working with Dr. Hagen in achieving that goal and others that will reduce the toll of foodborne illness.”

William Marler, a lawyer and food safety advocate, echoed the excitement of having a food safety person on point. “I think the appointment of a medical doctor–especially one with a background in infectious disease–is significant. FSIS is ultimately a public health agency that should not be concerned with meat sales, but rather with meat safety.”