The nation’s top food safety job remains vacant after the U.S. Senate left it out of a final batch of nominees confirmed this past Wednesday night during the final hours of the 115th Congress.
It means the Under Secretary of Agriculture for Food Safety vacancy has now officially entered its sixth year.
The White House will likely re-submit the nomination of Mindy Brashears to the 116th Congress. Then it will be up to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry to decide if it should renew its recommendation, made Dec. 5, 2018, for approval of the nomination.
Brashears and two other top USDA nominees were excluded from the list of about 70 nominees that were confirmed in the near last-minute vote based on an agreement between the Senate’s partisan leaders, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-KY, and Chuck Schumer, D-NY.
The 115th Congress adjourned with hundreds of civilian and military jobs remaining unfilled for lack of Senate confirmation. About 20 of the nominations that did make it through before the end were for ambassador posts. The McConnell-Schumer list of nominees included some significant jobs, but not much in the way of controversy.
Why it did not include Brashears is not known. The Texas Tech University food safety professor was unanimously recommended for Senate confirmation by the Senate Ag Committee. She sailed through the nomination process and hearing conducted by the Ag Committee, which has a reputation for acting in a bipartisan manner.
The Under Secretary of Agriculture for Food Safety is one of 707 “key” executive branch nominations, according to the Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that are tracking the confirmation process.
Brashears is among 140 nominees that now still await Senate confirmation, assuming they are re-submitted to the 116th Congress. The Senate did confirm 434 of the 707 “key executive” positions. All totaled, it is estimated that about 1,200 executive branch jobs require Senate confirmation.
Thirteen jobs at USDA require Senate confirmation. In addition to Brashears, Scott Hutchins, the nominee for Under Secretary of Agriculture for Research, Education, and Economics, and Naomi Earp, the nominee for Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, also did not get through confirmation before the end of 2018.
Tthe last Under Secretary of Agriculture for Food Safety, Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, resigned five years ago. The 1994 USDA Reorganization Act by law requires the president to appoint the Under Secretary for Food Safety, subject to Senate confirmation.
That law was ignored for three years when the previous administration allowed the long-time administrator of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), Al Almanza, to hold both the top FSIS job and food safety oversight post. During most of this time, Almanza was “acting FSIS administrator” and “deputy” Under Secretary for Food Safety.
That changed a bit in the fourth year, especially after Almanza left government service and went to work for JBS. Veteran FSIS executives Carmen Rottenberg and Paul Kiecker have split up the duties that Almanza previously held solely. But it took until May 2018 for the White House to announce the nomination of Brashears. And it took until Dec. 5 for Brashers to clear the Senate Ag Committee.
The Senate minority cannot stop Trump Administration appointees, but it can eat up limited floor time and as a tactic, it has worked. About four in ten “key executive” position remain unfilled with Trump appointees. It’s roughtly the same percentage at USDA.
Brashears is a professor of food safety and public health at TTU. She is also the director of the International Center for Food Industry Excellence, also at Texas Tech University. Her research program focuses on improving food safety standards to make an impact on public health.
USDA says her research is “highly acclaimed work (that) evaluates interventions in pre- and post-harvest environments and on the emergence of antimicrobial drug resistance in animal feeding systems. These efforts have resulted in the commercialization of a pre-harvest feed additive that can reduce E. coli and Salmonella in cattle.”
In addition to her research, Brashears has led international research teams to Mexico, Central America and South America to improve food safety and security and to set up sustainable agriculture systems in impoverished areas. Brashears is a past chair of the National Alliance for Food Safety and Security.
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