Through July, people outside the federal government have met in private with the leadership of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) 54 different times. Forty-eight of those meetings have been with Alfred V. Almanza, USDA’s Deputy Under Secretary of Food Safety and acting Administrator of FSIS. The remaining six meetings have been with Brian Ronholm, the other Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety, who was named USDA’s acting Under Secretary for Food Safety when Dr. Elisabeth Hagen left government. She is the most recent of just four people who have held the presidential appointment as Under Secretary for Food Safety, a post requiring U.S. Senate confirmation since a law mandating how FSIS leadership is supposed to be organized was signed in 1994 by President Bill Clinton.

Brian Ronholm
Brian Ronholm
But the actual Under Secretary for Food Safety post remains vacant, and FSIS leadership is currently in the hands of the dual Deputy Under Secretaries. Theirs is very much an ad-hoc arrangement, and there are not many clues for outsiders to tell how it’s working out. One measure that does exist are the monthly public calendars that FSIS publishes. Anyone outside the administration meeting with the Under Secretary, Deputy Under Secretary, Administrator, or Deputy Administrator can expect to have the date and subject of their session and a brief note about the topic included on the public calendar for all to see. Taken together, their public calendars suggest that the two Deputy Under Secretaries have worked out a kind of “Mr. Inside” and “Mr. Outside” division of their duties since last September when Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack imposed the unusual leadership hierarchy on USDA’s food safety unit. While both Almanza and Ronholm hold Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety titles, it gets a little more complicated from there. Ronholm continues to be the “acting” Under Secretary, and Almanza is “acting” Administrator of FSIS, meaning that the agency’s 10,000 employees continue to report to him. That position is the same one Almanza has held for eight years, working up from being an inspector on the floor of a small Dalhart, TX, slaughterhouse to the top non-political job at FSIS. In their Deputy Under Secretary jobs, Almanza and Ronholm share USDA’s Office of Food Safety, which was set up in the Under Secretary’s fiefdom. But with no current Under Secretary for Food Safety — and no sign that President Obama plans to appoint one in his administration’s final year and four months — the two Deputy Under Secretaries have apparently divided up duties.
Al Almanza
When Almanza was Administrator during Hagen’s tenure as Under Secretary, the two were fairly equal in time spent in outside meetings. Almanza has continued nearly monthly separate sessions with consumer and industry representatives. He’s brought Deputy Administrator Phil Derfler and Chief of Staff Carmen Rottenberg into most of those meetings. Besides hand-holding the domestic lobbyists, Almanza in 2015 has been handling most of the international relations for FSIS. He did an “FSIS update” for Ambassador Claudio Bisogniero of Italy in a meeting on April 7, 2015. Dr. Enrique Sanchez Cruz, director general of Mexico’s National Service for Agro-Alimentary Public Health, Safety and Quality, led a delegation to meet with Almanza on July 1. Marek Sawicki, Poland’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, came through a couple weeks later on July 14. Some of Almanza’s meetings just involve international business, such as a June 4, 2015, meeting with the Meat Import Council of America on access for beef manufactured in Ireland, or on April 22, 2015, when representatives from the New Zealand Embassy paid a visit to Almanza’s office to discuss policy changes. Almanza has also met with several members of Congress and their legislative analysts and has held a mass meeting for Senate staff, all to explain FSIS’s 2016 budget request. Poultry and meat groups took about one-third of all of his private meetings. Some of that meeting traffic was for discussion of the bird flu crisis and the potential for a vaccine. As for Ronholm, he met Jan. 22 (and again on March 26) about Codex issues with representatives of Elanco, the animal feed production division of Ely Lilly and Company. He reported a brief visit to discuss food safety issues with MMI Culinary Services on April 13. Two days later, on April 15, Ronholm discussed food safety and the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) with Colleen Hamilton, Dr. Mark Armfelt and Linda Chimenti. Chip Kunde and Nehl Horton, both in government affairs jobs at Sysco, got to talk with Ronholm about food safety on June 11, and on July 28, the Deputy Under Secretary met with a team working on the startup of a new pork processing plant in Sioux City. Ronholm was named Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety in April 2011 and came to USDA after serving as an agriculture appropriations expert for Congresswoman Rosa L. DeLauro (D-CT).

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