Getting a Presidential appointment and Senate confirmation turned out to be no easy task for Jose Emilio Esteban, the new Undersecretary for Food Safety. Yet he’s turned in his first couple of months on the job with apparent ease.

Between the time Esteban’s predecessor, Mindy Brashears, exited the USDA building ahead of Joe Biden becoming President and his Senate confirmation last Dec. 22, the office stood vacant for almost two years. And that’s not unusual for the Undersecretary for Food Safety, the official Congress created 30 years ago is as often empty as it is filled.

This time, it was 10 months passed before Biden appointed Esteban and another 10 months before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry managed to give the nominee a hearing and favorable report to the full Senate. Then Esteban had to wait three more months for the Senate voice vote that confirmed his appointment.

That last-minute confirmation vote did mean Esteban could go to work just as the new year was about to start. And with the public calendars out for January and February, it’s possible to see what Esteban has been up to in his first weeks as Undersecretary for Food Safety.

These public calendars are issued by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), listing meetings held by the Under Secretary and Deputy Under Secretary, Office of Food Safety (OFS) and the Administrator and Deputy Administrator for FSIS with persons outside the Federal Government. 

When Esteban arrived in the building, he was no stranger.

Prior to becoming Undersecretary for Food Safety, Esteban worked since 2001 in several roles at the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Most recently he was chief scientist at the FSIS from 2018 to 2022. Before joining the USDA, Esteban was at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as an epidemic intelligence service officer, staff epidemiologist, and assistant director of the food safety office.

Esteban trained as a veterinarian in Mexico. He holds an MBA, a master’s degree in Preventive Veterinary Medicine, and a Ph.D. in Epidemiology from the University of California-Davis.

Ashley Peterson of the National Chicken Council; and attorney Brian Eyink of the firm Hogan Lovells were the first from outside the federal government to meet with the new Undersecretary for Food Safety That meeting occurred on Jan. 19, 2023, and was about the “Salmonella framework.”

On the Hogan Lovells website, there is a quote saying: “Brian Eyink helps clients find practical solutions to regulatory problems. Brian is particularly sensitive to risk management issues as companies adapt to a regulatory and political environment increasingly focused on inspections, enforcement, and investigations.”

FSIS’s “Salmonella framework” at that time was about the possibility of making Salmonella an adulterant in some poultry products, which in late April came to pass.

On the same day, Esteban with backup from Sandra Eskin, Deputy Under Secretary, OFS, Paul Kiecker, Administrator, FSIS; Terri Nintemann, Deputy Administrator, FSIS; Jeremy Todd Reed, Chief Operating Officer, FSIS; Atiya Khan, Chief of Staff, OFS; Karen Hunter, Chief of Staff, FSIS; Mark Williams, Deputy Chief of Staff, FSIS; Robert Witte, Deputy Chief of Staff, FSIS; and FSIS Assistant Administrators, met in separate virtual gatherings with both consumer and industry representatives.

The Undersecretary for Food Safety’s final outside meeting during his first month on the job was with Bruce Stewart-Brown of Perdue Farms. The Jan. 31 telephonic hookup was about the National Poultry Improvement Plan. Stewart-Brown is Senior Vice President of Technical Services and Innovation at Perdue Farms.

The next day, Feb. 1, Patricia Lopez, a reporter with Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, was granted an interview with Esteban that was accomplished over a virtual hook-up.

Salmonella and poultry were the topics of another virtual meeting, this one on Feb. 2 with Michael R. Taylor, STOP Foodborne Illness; Craig Wilson, Costco; Sarah George, Costco; Mansour Samadpour, IEH Laboratories, and Consulting Group. Joining Esteban were Sandra Eskin, Deputy Under Secretary, OFS; Dr. Denise Eblen, OPHS Assistant Administrator, FSIS; Dr. Kis Robertson Hale, OPHS Deputy Assistant Administrator, FSIS; Dr. Amber Pasko, Veterinary Medical Officer, FSIS; Kristal Southern, Biological Science Information Specialist, FSIS; Iva Bilanovic, Mathematician-Statistician, FSIS; and Dr. Peter Evans, Consumer Safety Officer, FSIS.

Esteban next participated with the Coalition for Poultry Safety Reform in a Feb.13 meeting. Included were: Sarah Sorscher, Center for Science in the Public Interest; Thomas Gremillion, Consumer Federation of America; Brian Ronholm, Consumer Reports;  Scott Faber, Environmental Working Group; Mitzi Baum, Stop Foodborne Illness; Amanda Craten, Consumer Federation of America; Vanessa Coffman, STOP Foodborne Illness; Shrinidhi (Nidhi) Joshi, STOP Foodborne Illness; Craig Hedberg, University of Minnesota; John Glenn Morris, University of Florida; Martin Wiedmann, Cornell University; Dr. Alice Johnson, Butterball; Bruce Stewart-Brown, Perdue; Bryan Miller, Wayne Farms; Michael Robach, The Robach Group, LLC;  Steven Mandernach, Association of Food and Drug Officials; Jerold Mande, Harvard University; Michael Taylor, Global Food Safety Initiative; Alexa Cohn, Cornell University; Craig Wilson, Costco; Barbara Masters, Tyson; Matthew Stasiewicz, University of Illinois; Hyo Jin Lee, Temple University; Miller, Bryan; Angie Siemens, Cargill; Katie Stolte-Carroll, Ohio State University; Barbara Kowalcyk, Ohio State University; and John Glenn Morris, University of Florida

On Feb. 14, Dr. Luke Minion, Chris Venteicher, and Sean Simpson, all with Wholestone Farms; along with Ashlee Johnson and Andrew Harker, both with the Russell Group had a virtual meeting with the Undersecretary for Food Safety on “Time-Limited Trial.”

Also on Feb. 14, Drs. Francisco J Zagmutt, and Jane Pouzou, both of EpiX Analytics”  met virtually with Esteban and many others from FSIS headquarters about salmonella virulence.

On Feb. 15, Esteban led an FSIS session for “USDA-regulated Establishments and Industry Representatives” on updates. And on Feb. 16, the Undersecretary did another round of separate meetings for consumer and industry representatives.

On Feb. 21, Esteban did an in-person “meet and greet” with United Food and Commercial Workers Union members. It’s the union representing the meat and poultry plants regulated by FSIS.

Jeremy Wilson-Simerman, Laura McElroy, Janet Helms, and Sarah Kipp, all from McDonald’s with Adam Tarr, and Kevin Diestelow, both of Invariant, LLC met virtually with Esteban on Feb. 21 about McDonald’s Beef Supply Chain Antibiotic Policy.

And that closes out Esteban’s public calendar for his second month in office.

He is the sixth Senate-confirmed Undersecretary for Food Safety.

In addition to his predecessor, Mindy Brashears, the four others who have held the office are: Dr. Elisabeth Hagen from August 2010-December 2013; Dr. Richard Allen Raymond from July 2003-January 2009; Elsa A. Murano from October 2001 -December 2004; and Catherine Woteki from July 1997-January 2001.

Calendars do not have to include meetings already announced to the public.

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