The pairing of Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue with Michael Doyle as USDA’s undersecretary for food safety might seem like a natural.

Perdue is a former Georgia governor and Doyle is the University of Georgia’s Regents Professor of Food Microbiology. Doyle recently stepped down as the head of UGA’s Center for Food Safety, which he founded and led for 25 years.

Michael Doyle
Michael Doyle

The food safety undersecretary job is one of a half dozens positions at USDA requiring presidential appointment and Senate confirmation. The position was created 24 years ago during the most recent major USDA reorganization by Congress. The intent was that it would be the federal government’s top food safety job.

If you want to be the undersecretary for food safety, though, you might not exactly campaign for the job. But your friends and admirers might.

Richard Raymond, who was USDA’s undersecretary for food safety, during President George W. Bush’s second term, has made a very public endorsement of Doyle.

“Your man is sitting in your back yard, Raymond’s letter to Perdue says. “He is Mike Doyle with the University of Georgia. I think you would make both the consumer groups mentioned above and the meat and poultry industries very happy.”

Who is Doyle?
For Doyle, his first lessons in food safety came while growing up on a Wisconsin dairy farm. He is a product of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he earned a bachelor’s of science in bacteriology; a master’s of science and doctorate, both in food microbiology. He was on faculty at UW’s Good Research Institute from 1980 to 1991, where he was recognized for developing the first test to detect E. coli 0157, the dangerous bacterial food pathogen that came to be known for causing diarrhea, abdominal cramps, kidney failure and even death.

Doyle was recruited to join UGA in 1991 to lead its new Center for Food Safety.The center now has a faculty of 19. Doyle has worked frequently with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on investigations of outbreaks of foodborne disease.

Raymond’s open letter focuses on how lucky President Obama was in going without a USDA undersecretary for food safety job for three years, warning Perdue that he might not be so lucky.

“President Obama evidently did not think the position was too important as that chair sat empty for nearly five of the eight years he was in office,” Raymond wrote. “He got lucky.

“He did not have a Westland Hallmark Meat Co. recall, the largest in U.S. history. He did not have a TOPPS recall that involved tainted meat from Canada, he did not have to close both the Canadian and Mexican borders to imported meat due to the lack of food safety measures equal to the U.S.’s inspection system,” added Raymond, who worked at USDA after serving as Nebraska’s chief medical officer.

“He did not have the first cow found dead from Mad Cow Disease, he did not have the Jack in the Box disaster, and he did not see any human deaths from ‘bird flu.’ You won’t be so lucky. History repeats itself. You need someone to prevent disasters, and to respond to them when necessary.”

Raymond also made it clear that Obama was not the only one who has had trouble keeping the nation’s top food safety position filled since it was created.

In the 24 years that have followed, there have only been four appointments:

  • Cathy Wotecki, appointed by President Bill Clinton;
  • Elsa Murano and Raymond, appointed by President George W. Bush; and
  • Elisabeth Hagen appointed by President Obama.

The four former undersecretaries for food safety — who include two medical doctors and two PhDs, two appointed by Republicans and two by Democrats, two from the Beltway and two from Midwest, and three woman and a man — do have one thing in common.

“We all lasted only 1,200 days, give or take a few here and there” Raymond wrote to Perdue. “That means someone was at the job just 13 out of those 24 years. Not acceptable”

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