Though the Senate Agriculture Committee recently held a hearing to consider Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, the Obama Administration’s nominee for Under Secretary for Food Safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the timeline for Hagen’s expected confirmation by the full Senate remains unclear.
According to Ag Committee sources, there is currently no timeline to hold a vote on whether to send Hagen to the floor for consideration for the post.
If confirmed, Hagen would lead the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which regulates meat, poultry, and processed egg products, which account for approximately twenty percent of the food supply. The position has been without a Senate-confirmed leader for 20 months. Hagen, who currently serves as the agency’s chief medical officer, was announced as the Administration’s pick in late January, but the Ag Committee just held a hearing on the nomination last week (the hearing, it should be noted, was not much longer than 45 minutes, and was largely noncontroversial).
The lingering vacancy has drawn considerable criticism in the food policy community, causing many to question whether FSIS is lacking leadership and direction at a time when the Administration is stressing food safety system reform.
There are two issues thought to be hindering the confirmation process right now. To begin, Ag Committee Chairwoman Blanche Lincoln, a conservative Democrat, is facing a cut throat primary runoff in Arkansas. Hitting the campaign trail has complicated the Senator’s schedule, making Committee proceedings difficult.
It is also rumored that Blanche Lincoln’s frustration with the delayed USDA catfish inspection rule–which would help Arkansas catfish farmers who have been devastated by a flux of cheap Asian imports–is causing a snag in the process.
During the nomination hearing last week, Lincoln pressed Hagen on the catfish issue several times. Hagen indicated that, if confirmed, she would consider implementing the rule a top priority.
As Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for Food and Water Watch, recently explained, the progress towards implementation also remains uncertain. “The proposed rule has languished in the Office of Management and Budget because of objections raised by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative since some countries that currently export catfish to the U.S. do not think that they can meet the more stringent food safety standards that FSIS will require.”
Primary runoff and catfish issues aside, Hagen is expected to be confirmed once sent to the floor. After the nomination hearing last week, Hagen told Food Safety News she hopes to get to work soon.