Now that we know Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack will be with us to the end, it’s time to loop back and seriously consider the food safety legacy he has left behind for himself and his President. Vilsack helped us out by putting out his own list on July 5. Under the title “Safer Food and Greater Consumer Confidence,” Secretary Vilsack did get down to the specifics. “Our estimates indicate that the total number of illnesses attributed to USDA-regulated products fell more than 12 percent from 2009 to 2015,” Vilsack said. “ The policies implemented under the Obama Administration will go a long way in protecting public health. For example, it is estimated that the food safety standards implemented for Salmonella and Campylobacter in poultry will prevent about 67,000 illnesses annually.” The Secretary did a list of the “top 5 food safety changes we’ve made since 2009.” Here’s his legacy list:
- The banning of six additional E. coli strains including O26, O103, O45, O111, O121, and O145.
- Labeling of mechanically tenderized meat to warn if blades or needles were used to tenderize whole beef cuts, a practice that might push pathogens from the surface into the interior of the meat.
- Imposed pathogen reduction standards for poultry parts to reduce consumer exposure to Salmonella and Campylobacter.
- Adopted the new Poultry Inspection System, the first wholesale change to the poultry inspection program since the Eisenhower Administration.
- Required meat and poultry companies to practice “test and hold,” procedures, holding products that are going through laboratory analysis until FSIS microbial and chemical tests are complete.
There is no doubt the top 5 list of accomplishments are important changes. The future challenge for USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is to bring down Salmonella and Campylobacter levels in dramatic fashion. Some of those changes are designed to accomplish such a reduction, but it will be some time before there is enough data to say whether or not it has happened. In writing his legacy, Vilsack recognized the “faces of food safety” this way: “USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which by statute is charged with ensuring the safety of our meat, poultry and processed egg supply, consists of a team of 9,600 men and women. They work in one of three food safety laboratories across the United States, maintain a constant presence in more than 6,000 slaughter and processing facilities, and reinspect imports at 122 ports of entry. Still others spend long hours on the road cracking foodborne illness outbreak cases, or they improve policies and piece together telling data trends here in Washington, D.C. They are a committed and talented bunch, of whom the rest of the USDA family is immensely proud.” Nicely stated as far as it goes. It does not say that just 1 percent of the USDA budget goes to food safety, or that, during the past several budget years, the number of people working for FSIS has gone pretty unchanged. With this credit to all mode, the Secretary avoids any need to recognize leadership at FSIS. One could be left with the impression that no one is in charge at FSIS. Nothing could be further from the truth. The boss at FSIS is Alfred V. Almanz. Almanza came up as a west Texas meat inspector, rising about decade ago as FSIS administrator. Two years ago, he became acting administrator so Vilsack could reward him with the title of USDA deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety. Brian Ronholm holds the same title. Neither Vilsack nor Obama has ever said why Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, the USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety, was never replaced after she departed almost three years ago. Legally mandated and the most important food safety position in USDA, the Under Secretary for Food Safety remains vacant. Since it took them two years to name Dr. Hagen, and it’s going on three years since she left, this means the Obama food safety legacy includes leaving the most important food safety position at USDA vacant for five of the eight years. One could say there ought to be a law to present that from happening in the future, but there already is a law. Since he did not get named by Secretary Clinton as her Vice President, we can assume Secretary Vilsack is prepared to stay in office until President Obama takes that ride to the Capitol with the President-elect on Jan. 20, 2017. Perhaps he will want to “revise and extend” his legacy comments before then. But he must hurry now as there are less than 175 days remaining in the Obama presidency.