She is knee-deep in expertise about beef cattle, but don’t be surprised if Mindy Brashears today mostly “talks turkey” during her long-awaited confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry.

The hearing kicks off today at 9:30 a.m. EDT, and will be available via Live Stream from Room 328A Russell Senate Office Building.

Scheduled to appear before the committee are Brashears, nominated to be USDA’s under secretary of agriculture for food safety; Scott Hutchins, nominated to be USDA’s under secretary of agriculture for research, education, and economics; and Naomi Earp, nominated as a USDA assistant secretary of agriculture for civil rights.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has gone without an under secretary for food safety for nearly five years. Brashears, a professor and director of the International Center for Food Industry Excellence at Texas Tech University, was nominated for the position by President Donald J. Trump on May 4. If confirmed by the Senate, she will succeed Dr. Elisabeth Hagen who left the job in December 2013.

Timing and circumstances are among the reasons why Brashears will likely find herself “talking turkey” during today’s nomination hearing. Many food safety issues have come and gone at USDA during the past five years. But this past Friday, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) released a list with a year’s worth of data showing which poultry plants failed Salmonella performance standards.

Salmonella outbreaks from chicken and turkey production have sickened hundreds in recent months and involved some massive recalls by major brands. The slaughter plant in Wisconsin for the Jennie-O Turkey Store company recently recalled 73.6 tons of raw ground turkey because a sample was found to be contaminated with the outbreak strain of Salmonella Reading that has sickened more than 160, killing one person. Additional brands could be contaminated, but no other recalls have been initiated.

Friday’s FSIS report said the Jennie-O facility is a Category 3 plant, meaning it isn’t meeting the standard in that product class. About 15 percent of 826 poultry plants were in the same boat as the Jennie-O and listed as Category 3. Three other Jennie-O plants were also in that category.

Perdue Farms also has three out of four of its facilities ranked in Category 3. The company claimed the rankings, for the one-year period from Oct. 29, 2017, to Oct. 27, 2018, don’t “necessarily” reflect current salmonella levels.

FSIS’s standard is that no more than 13.5 percent of comminuted turkey samples test positive for Salmonella, and no more than 25 percent of comminuted chicken samples test positive.

FSIS also announced it would be updating the plant information monthly and keeping six months worth of plant-specific data on its public website.

Brashears’ research interests include both meat and poultry products, so don’t expect her to become frustrated no matter where the questioning might lead. She’s also an expert in the use of feed additives to reduce E. coli and Salmonella in cattle.

Her testimony as an expert witness in the agricultural product defamation trial related to the term “pink slime” is credited by many with South Dakota’s Beef Products Inc. winning a reported $177 million from Disney’s ABC News.

Federal law mandates that if there is a vacancy as Under Secretary for Food Safety, the president shall make a qualified appointment who shall serve upon confirmation by the U.S. Senate. The 13 top jobs at USDA require presidential appointment and Senate confirmation. If today’s three nominees are confirmed, 10 of those jobs will be filled.

For additional coverage, please see “Taking Salmonella seriously: Will Dr. Brashears use the tools at her disposal to protect public health?”

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