Military officers sometimes wear “dual hats,” meaning, for example, that they might be both a base commander and the commander of an army. In food safety, we now have “dual heads” that Barack Obama and Tom Vilsack want fitted into one hat. Those heads belong to Al Almanza and Brian Ronholm, both of whom now hold the title of USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety. Almanza, the long-time top administrator for USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), was just appointed. Ronholm was named deputy when Dr. Elisabeth Hagen served as Under Secretary for Food Safety, and he’s been acting in that office since she left for the private sector last December. President Obama and Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack, who will continue in their jobs for two more years, have apparently done a “dual head” to the office of the Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety, and we may not see another Under Secretary for Food Safety until there is a new administration in the White House. What I’ve heard is that Vilsack wanted the president to appoint Almanza as the next Under Secretary for Food Safety back before USDA’s new poultry inspection changes were put in place. The White House Office of Management and Budget had to sign off on the new regulations, and, as everybody knows, the meat inspector unions have been in a nearly two-decade fight against those changes. Appointing Almanza to the government’s top food safety post, which requires Senate confirmation, would take a little political courage. He does not fit the profile of those who have held the office; those four people have been heavy on medical and scientific credentials. Almanza isn’t loaded with academic credentials, but he does bring 35 years of experience to the job. His career with the federal government began in the windy Texas panhandle town of Dalhart, where he was a meat inspector in a small plant. He advanced through the Dallas district office before ending up with a window on the Capitol Mall, rising to be FSIS administrator. As much as anyone in government, Almanza has managed the agency changes that, during the past 20 years, took FSIS from the “poke-and-sniff” era to the one now dedicated to identification and eradication of pathogens. But rising to Under Secretary of Food Safety has not happened because poultry rule opponents promised to oppose his confirmation if the administration went forward with the chicken reforms. It seems that Vilsack could get the president to name Almanza as Under Secretary or get the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to release the long-sought reforms in poultry regulation, but not both. USDA went with enacting the poultry reforms that unions had thwarted for so long. Almanza, who had worked the poultry issue ever since becoming FSIS administrator, supported the choice and is happy to be in the “supersized” deputy’s office. He and Ronholm, who came to USDA from Capitol Hill, already work together, so these two heads in one hat probably won’t have a problem. The food safety issue, however, will be if the Obama administration has no further plans to appoint anyone to be Under Secretary for Food Safety. Poultry politics made this current set of decisions necessary to defeat the onslaught of union money that caged fowl reform for years (just having a little fun there), but the law is the law. And Section 261 of the 1994 law establishes in USDA the position of Under Secretary for Food Safety. It further states, “The Under Secretary shall be appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, from individuals with specialized training or significant experience in food safety or public health programs.” It’s unfortunate how long even non-controversial presidential appointments take to “vet” and get confirmed, and this one takes longer than most. We’ve noted before that the four people who have served as Under Secretary for Food Safety were in office for a total of about 13 years. That means others have been “acting” for a total of seven years, while searches, vetting, and waiting for confirmation votes have taken up the time. We’ve suggested that it be changed to a 10-year term like that of the FBI director. The last thing we need is to just accept a jerry-rigged system that could leave one of the most powerful food safety positions in the government vacant. The presidential appointment with Senate confirmation was put in the law 20 years ago because those who were working for food safety then wanted to both gain some separation from the marketing side of USDA and give the office some independence and clout. We hope the plan is not to ignore all that and leave this important office in the hands of an “acting” official, no matter how able. If the president were to still appoint Almanza after the election, he’d need only 51 votes for Senate confirmation. Surely food safety is important enough for the politicians to allow the office to be filled with a man who is known and respected by unions, consumer groups and industry. If the administration has a better plan, we’re open to it. We just do not want to hear that the top food safety position is being left vacant. The law says the president shall appoint the Under Secretary for Food Safety. Anything less is an exercise in lawlessness.