Were it not for rules prohibiting a committee vote on the same day as the nomination hearing, the appointment of Mindy Brashears as Under Secretary of Agriculture for Food Safety likely would have already been sent to the floor of the U.S. Senate for a confirmation vote.
The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry heard the nominations of Brashears, Scott Hutchins, and Naomi Earp in a breezy session lasting less than two hours on Wednesday morning. When it was over, Chairman Pat Roberts, R-KS, predicted the committee would shortly vote to recommend the full Senate confirm all three appointments.
Roberts gave committee members until 5 p.m. EST Wednesday to submit written questions to the nominees. President Trump nominated Brashears to the federal government’s top food safety job last May 4, Hutchins was nominated as Under Secretary for Research. Education, and Economics; and Earp as Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights.
Roberts opened the hearing on the three nominations are critical to USDA’s mission across the department’s 29 agencies that involve 100,000 employees.
No mention was made of the fact that it has been just days short of five years since a presidential appointee with Senate confirmation has been Under Secretary for Food Safety. Roberts did say it is “an extremely important position” with responsibility for food safety at more than 6,000 meat, poultry, egg and catfish processing facilities around the country.
In her opening statement, and in response to questions, Brashears gave the committee a preview of both her attitudes and the approach she will take once she wins Senate confirmation. Saying food safety and trade are both important, she did not express any concern about the international food standards office known as Codex being run out of USDA’s trade unit.
The Under Secretary for Food Safety still chairs U.S. Codex committee, but the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) no longer staffs Codex. Brashears says we need safe food that can be traded.
She also said she plans to get along with the federal government’s other big food safety agency, the Food and Drug Administration. She was supportive of the recent USDA-FDA agreement on the regulation of lab-grown meat.
Brashears did say that agreement is now out for public comments and if confirmed, she will be among those who will have to decide how to respond to them. She said that agreement puts FDA in charge of regulating new cell lines, while USDA takes over when the product reaches the point of being actual food.
Brashers said USDA’s role will include the “standard of identify” question and the labeling responsibility where consumers will demand transparency. “We have a lot of questions that need to be answered,” she said.
Recent Salmonella outbreaks, principally caused by raw ground chicken and turkey, also prompted questions for Brashears. This past Friday FSIS released data showing the poultry plants that failed to achieve a Salmonella standard.
Brashears says public release of the data “was the right thing to do.” It showed many top brand names are being produced in processing plants that are getting failing grades.
She said poultry companies generally know what they need to do to improve their score and a rolling “52-week window” gives them the opportunity to do so. Brashears the current failure rate “is not acceptable.”
Sen.Chuck Grassley, R-IA, used his time during the confirmation hearing to urge the three nominees to listen to would-be whistleblowers and answer their mail. “If you give them some attention, I’d appreciate it,” he said.
Grassley, who wrote 550 letters asking executive agencies for information in the past year, says even though most nominees agree to cooperate with Congress during nomination hearings, many don’t. “it’s a pain in the butt when you don’t get an answer.” he says.
Grassley says before anyone calls them whistleblowers, they are just federal employees concerned about something wrong being done or money being misspent.
Brashears is a professor and director of the International Center for Food Industry Excellence at Texas Tech University. If confirmed by the Senate, she will succeed Dr. Elisabeth Hagen who left the job in December 2013.
(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)