In our countdown of the top food safety news stories of 2010, the “Senate Confirms Under Secretary of Agriculture for Food Safety” is number 10:


On or about the 611th day of his administration, President Obama got his choice for USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

The President did not nominate Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, previously USDA’s chief medical officer, until the 370th day of his administration last Jan. 25.  On his 545th day in office, Obama got tired of waiting for the U.S. Senate to confirm Hagen and gave her a “recess” appointment.

She has been in charge of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service since last Aug. 19.

Food Safety News has learned Hagen was not the President’s first choice for the job.  That candidate withdrew from consideration after learning he would have to give up certain financial holdings. That is why Obama went an entire year without naming a candidate, even through he was at the same time making food safety a priority.

The month after her recess appointment, Hagen was finally confirmed by the U.S. Senate, making her appointment permanent.  Her recess appointment would have lasted only until the end of the 111th Congress, which is now over.

Since joining the federal government in 2006, Hagen has advanced a science-based, public health agenda at USDA.  She directed mission-critical outbreak and consumer complaint investigations, oversaw agency risk assessments and regulatory testing programs, and led key policy development efforts for emerging public health issues as a senior executive in the FSIS Office of Public Health Science, most recently as Deputy Assistant Administrator.

Prior to her appointment as Under Secretary, she served as USDA’s Chief Medical Officer, advising FSIS and other USDA mission areas on a range of human health issues, such as food safety, nutrition, and zoonotic diseases. 

Hagen has also been actively involved in interagency efforts to better protect the public from foodborne illnesses, including the Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network (FoodNet) Steering Committee, which guides the work of the nation’s premier foodborne illness monitoring system.  She was also a member of the Council to Improve Foodborne Outbreak Response (CIFOR), a national collaborative effort to detect, investigate, control, and prevent foodborne disease outbreaks. 

Before joining public service, Hagen taught and practiced medicine in both the private and academic sectors.  In addition to several hospital and university appointments, her experience includes research and publications in infectious diseases and providing medical care to underserved populations.  Hagen holds an M.D. from Harvard Medical School and a B.S. from Saint Joseph’s University.  She completed specialty medical training at the University of Texas Southwestern and the University of Pennsylvania, and is board certified in infectious diseases.

Photo courtesy of the USDA


The controversy over unpasteurized milk, being played out nationally and particularly in two states this past year, is number 9 in our top food safety stories list:  “Raw Milk Wars Rage In Minnesota And Wisconsin”


The 50 states are laboratories for raw milk policy.  Every year, battles break out between the pro and anti raw milk sides.  Two battles this year in the heart of dairy country were especially important.

The first was fought out in Wisconsin, a state so known for milk and milk products that the NFL has licensed its cheese heads.  It was mostly a legislative tussle.  The second front involved an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to a raw milk producer who fought back in the courts.

In March, a Wisconsin Senate committee approved a bill that for the first time since 1955 would have allowed direct sales of raw milk to consumers.  The brand integrity of Wisconsin’s $26 billion dairy industry was about to be put in serious jeopardy. 

Although all of the state’s powerful dairy organizations came out solidly against the measure, including the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association, Wisconsin Farm Bureau, the Cooperative Network, it continued to advance.

In May, the bill got through the Wisconsin Assembly on a 60-35 vote.  The only thing standing between cheese heads selling raw milk directly to consumers was Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle.

And the Wisconsin governor vetoed a measure he said lacked the regulatory checks that states like California have in place to protect consumers.  Even raw milk advocate Mark McAfee, co-owner of California-based Organic Pastures Dairy Company, said he was not surprised Gov. Doyle vetoed the bill because of its “loose standards.”

Next door, in Minnesota, it was not a legislative debate but a long-running clash between brothers Michael and Roger Hartmann and Minnesota’s top-notch public health and agriculture regulators over responsibility for an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak.

That outbreak last spring infected at least eight people, including a 2-year old, and it was traced back in short order to the Hartmann Dairy Farm at Gibbon, MN.  The state ordered the dairy to cease its raw milk sales and embargoed its products.

In defiance of state regulators, Hartmann continued to sell raw milk.  The matter ended up in Minnesota’s First Judicial District Court, and Hartmann came out the loser.