It has been almost two years since Dr. Elisabeth Hagen stepped down as our most recent USDA under secretary for food safety. President Obama has not appointed, nor has the Senate confirmed, anyone to fill that vacancy since Hagen departed. It’s now also been 21 years since, on Oct. 19, 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the Agricultural Reorganization Act, which states that the president shall name an under secretary for food safety and that person shall commence service upon confirmation by the U.S. Senate.

Dr. Elisabeth Hagen being sworn in as USDA under secretary for food safety on Aug. 20, 2010.
While the position of under secretary for food safety continues to be vacant, USDA uses the two-man utility team of Al Almanza and Brian Ronholm. Both hold a job title as deputy acting under secretary for food safety, while Almanza is also acting administrator of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Other than a little confusion now and then, FSIS and USDA’s Office of Food Safety do not seem to be hurting from joint Almanza-Ronholm leadership. Both are dedicated public servants with whom we have no particular issues. However, we are troubled by the apparent conscious decision that’s been made by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and President Obama to leave the top food safety job in the government vacant. We are really not sure what to make of it. Is it lawlessness, or just an appetite by the White House for a partial or targeted government shutdown that it does not want to talk about? Whatever it is, we have also noted how common it has become. In 21 years, only four very qualified individuals have been appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate to serve as under secretary for food safety. Presidents Clinton and Obama each appointed one, and President George W. Bush named two. Together, they’ve each served for about 1,250 days. That means that we’ve had an under secretary for food safety with presidential appointment and Senate confirmation for about 5,000 days since the position was created. If, as we suspect, Obama leaves the office vacant until the end of his administration on Jan. 20, 2017, it will means that we will reach about 3,000 days without the service of an under secretary for food safety with both presidential appointment and Senate confirmation. During those 3,000 days, there was either a vacancy or an acting under secretary for food safety. Our understanding of the legislative history of the reorganization act is that the under secretary position was created to strengthen the food safety side of USDA, which has a historic deep marketing role for America’s food producers. Whenever the position is allowed to remain vacant, food safety’s assets are not fully on the field. This does not mean you can point to anything that’s not being done, which seems to be where we are at today, nor does it mean the acting under secretary for food safety did not at times serve with distinction. Yet how important can the under secretary for food safety position be if the While House can leave the post vacant for years? In the past, I’ve called this a “term of service” problem, and I’ve also offered a solution. This is a good time to repeat that solution because, as yet, I don’t think either Congress or the president are taking me seriously. We need to amend the reorganization act to include a 10-year term for the under secretary for food safety. A 10-year term, just like the position of FBI director, would make it easier for the president to recruit a truly top-notch individual as the federal government’s face of food safety. It would be easier to pull someone out of academia or industry with a longer term. Someone with significant career experience might have financial issues that require them to put their affairs in trust or whatever in order to hold this kind of a public office, and many must conclude that it is not worth doing for only two or three years. A 10-year term for the USDA under secretary for food safety is a serious solution to the vacancy problem that we continue to see over and over again. It causes as much damage to food safety as a government shutdown, only it has lasted a lot longer than any of those.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)