Dr. Elisabeth Hagen is departing government in mid-December, again leaving America without a Senate-confirmed under secretary for food safety. How common are these periods when USDA is without an under secretary for food safety? More common than not, it seems. It was just over 19 years ago, on Oct. 19, 1994, that President Bill Clinton signed the Agriculture Reorganization Act, which accomplished much, including creating the post Hagen occupies. Since then, three presidents have appointed and gained Senate confirmation for the four outstanding individuals who have served as under secretary for food safety. Democratic Presidents Clinton and Barack Obama appointed two of the four, and Republican George W. Bush appointed the other two. However, to put it in language we can all understand, there is a real problem with the shelf life for the position. If you need reminding, the under secretary, in terms of protocol, is the highest food-safety official in the federal government. Yet, depending on the exact date of her departure, Dr. Hagen will serve as our “Senate-confirmed” under secretary for food safety for about 1,233 days. Is there an expiration date for the job? Well, along with her three predecessors, the average length of service is 1,250 days, with an incredibly tight range of 1,188 to 1,300 days. What we’ve got here is a term-of-service problem. Each of the four individuals who have held this office have advanced food safety, but not one has marked a fourth or fifth year in office. Unfortunately, they come and go, while the permanent pressure groups (industry, union, non-government interests) remain. All of those groups mouth support for food safety, while pursuing their own goals. That’s why they love the period we are about to enter — with no “Senate-confirmed” under secretary of food safety on board. We’ve been there often. For more than 2,100 days or five of the past 19 years, we’ve done without. To be sure, those who have served in an “acting” capacity in this office, including FDA’s Mike Taylor back in the Clinton administration, have carried on — sometimes with distinction. But it is not the same, and it isn’t just the table assignment at that next embassy function. It’s also being able to look the Secretary of Agriculture in the eye and say, “That’s the way it has to be.” Or tell one of those White House flunkies to have the president call you personally if he or she is really all that concerned. How does the government’s highest office for food safety stay vacant for so often and  so long? Well, it works out pretty well for everybody, especially those special interests. It took Obama 12 months to appoint Hagen, and it took eight months to get her confirmed by the Senate. There is no reason to think the next one is going to go much faster. The recruitment, financial and other background checks, and running the political gauntlet, all eat up time on the clock. So how about a solution? We need one that gives the under secretary for food safety the clout and security to do the job in the public interest. Since it does take so long to put an under secretary in place, I think the solution is simple – make it a 10- year term. Just like the FBI director? Yep. Ten years. If that means the next under secretary for food safety appointed by President Obama ends up finishing his or her term under a future GOP president, so be it. I think we’ve actually seen the benefits of that sort of continuity in the way that Dr. Richard Raymond, President Bush’s last under secretary for food safety, and Dr. Hagen, Obama’s first, have both brought to the office. Dr. Hagen was USDA’s chief medical officer during Dr. Raymond’s tenure. The two medical doctors have largely been on the same page of moving a food-safety agenda that history is likely to see spanning a partisan gap, much like Bush and Obama on national security. And, like I said, it would be in America’s best interest if any of the four who have held this office could have served for a 10-year term in the position. Catherine Woteki, the first under secretary for food safety, is back as a USDA under secretary today, only now for research, education, and economics. She is also USDA’s chief scientist. Elsa A. Murano is a professor of nutrition and food science at Texas A&M, where she also did a stint as the university’s president (the first Hispanic and first woman to head A&M). Raymond, who was Nebraska’s chief medical officer before he went to Washington, finds himself on a world lecture circuit before food-safety audiences and writing for digital media, including Food Safety News and others. A 10-year term for the USDA under secretary for food safety is a serious solution to the vacancy problem we have seen over and over, and we are about to experience again. It causes as much damage to food safety as a government shutdown, only it lasts a whole lot longer. (Read Food Safety News on Monday for a complete report on Hagen’s exit.)

  • doc raymond

    Dan, with all due respect to your idea, no one that i know could last ten years in the pressure cooker, and anyone who agreed to do it probably could not pass the vetting process when they examined his or her mental stability.

    I think a better, more practical solution would be for the Food Safety Coalition to take a closer look at its members who provoked, in part, Dr. Hagen’s premature departure. Maybe they should suggest those members (and they know who I am talking about) leave the coalition and form a new one called the Job Safety Coalition.