Tom Vilsack is again the Secretary of Agriculture, having won U.S. Senate confirmation in a 92-to-7 vote Tuesday. Sonny Perdue is back home in Georgia playing with his grandchildren. Long live the Secretary of Agriculture, but it’s going to be difficult for some to see much difference with this transition. We are talking about two popular former governors of big farm states with closes ties to big agriculture.   

I’ve been trying to understand this more by closely following this transition, or at least what little of it was carried out in public. I’ve even taken to reading books about transitions. Author Michael Lewis wrote “The Fifth Risk” in 2018 with this little gem:

“There’s a drinking game played by people who have worked at the Department of Agriculture; Does the USDA do it? Someone names an odd function of government (say, shooting fireworks at Canadian geese that flock too near airport runways) and someone else has to guess if the USDA does it. In this case, it does. “

Let me start by saying that I’ve come to agree with the many smarter minds than mine that federal food safety should become the responsibility of a single independent agency more on the style and structure common among our European friends.

Since I’ve been at this desk, there’s been any number of Blue Ribbon reports suggesting such a reorganization. It is not that I’ve disagreed with these reports, it’s that I’ve just looked at the mess we have now with all its structural ties going back to Congress and could not see how the reorganization could be accomplished from a political standpoint.

The House and Senate Agriculture Committees and their various subcommittees control about one-fifth of the U.S. economy. At his Feb. 2 confirmation hearing, Vilsack demonstrated masterful command of all that falls under USDA’s empire. It was an amazing performance as each senator pitched the secretary past and present on their own interests and Vilsack knocked them out of the park.

The broad array of subjects goes far beyond what most of us would think of as agriculture. Vilsack showed up ready to talk about anything from the concentration of ethanol or how goes the installation of broadband in rural America. And there’s only going to be more expansion for USDA into other areas. Climate change is next up, putting the day when a farmer can order changes to his weather is probably not that far off.

But there were no questions about food safety, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection service, or the post of Under Secretary for Food Safety. In watching the transition, I learned something that’s been staring me in the face for years.

The Senate Agriculture Committee does not have a subcommittee on food safety.

How is it, you say, that USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) with nearly 10,000 meat and poultry inspection personnel with a $1 billion annual payroll is without oversight. And how is it that the Office of Food Safety reports to nowhere.

And might this missing subcommittee be the real reason why that for half the time during the past 25 years the USDA’s Under Secretary for Food Safety seat has been vacant? The Under Secretary for Food Safety is the highest food safety position in the federal government, but more often than not it stands empty. As is the case at this present time.

So, here’s the plan that could work if the food safety community united.   First, we need to persuade the Senate Ag Committee to establish a Subcommittee on Food Safety. During its first year, the Subcommittee on Food Safety would study and recommend a single federal food safety authority.

The timing is ripe. It has always seemed that the world of drug and medical device approvals dominates FDA. The COVID-19 pandemic has only complicated FDA’s role, with vaccine reviews and the like. The CDC and other federal labs are also under strain. Within all that’s gone on,  the spin-off of food safety in line with world models might well ease the burden for FDA and labs.

For the many authors of those Blue Ribbon studies, now would be a good time to update us with your thoughts. I’d like to have a single agency chief with a 10-year term that’s filled with a live human with unimpeachable credentials.

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