Today the Senate Agriculture Committee will take the first step in the confirmation process for Under Secretary for Food Safety, a post at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that has been vacant for 19 months.  The Committee is holding a nomination hearing this morning to consider President Obama’s pick for the job, Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, who currently serves as chief medical officer at the agency.

The vacancy has drawn considerable criticism in the food policy community, causing many to question whether the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS)–which oversees meat, poultry, and processed eggs, accounting for 20 percent of the food supply–is lacking leadership and direction at a time when the Administration is stressing food safety system reform.

fsis-nomination-hearing.jpgHagen has awaited Senate confirmation for four months since being selected by the White House in late January. Several other Administration USDA nominees, however, have sailed through the Senate. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, former governor of Iowa, was appointed and confirmed by the Senate on Inauguration day, and as Food Safety News‘ Dan Flynn explained in April, other USDA Under Secretary nominees have cleared the Senate in as little to 10 or 15 days.

Richard Raymond, the last to hold the post, under the Bush Administration, waited only 35 days before clearing the Senate.

For Hagen, the hold up remains a mystery. “It is the Chairman’s prerogative as to when nomination hearings are held,” an Ag committee source told Food Safety News last month. (The hearing to consider Hagen had originally been scheduled for yesterday but was moved at the last minute so Committee Chairwoman Blanche Lincoln’s (D-AR) could head to Arkansas to campaign in an ongoing, heated primary runoff for her re-election.) 

While she was not well known on either the industry or consumer advocacy sides of the food safety community when the President appointed her, Hagen is highly regarded within the agency.

In addition to serving as chief medical officer, Hagen is 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,

according to the agency, she “played a key role in developing and

executing the agency’s scientific and public health agendas.”

Carol Tucker-Foreman, a distinguished fellow at The Food Policy Institute at Consumer Federation of America in Washington, responded to Hagen’s appointment in January 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.”

To watch the nomination hearing today, see the Ag Committee’s website – the meeting is scheduled to begin at 9:30 a.m. EST.