Food Safety Agenda Suffers without USDA Appointee

President Obama still has not nominated an undersecretary for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as Congress Daily reports today. Almost a year into his administration, the Food Safety Inspection Service – the federal agency in charge of making sure meat, poultry, and eggs are safe and labeled properly – is still without a leader.

vacancyPresident Obama made food safety a high priority in March when he announced the formation of his Food Safety Working Group. The working group has made progress, but the lengthy vacancy at USDA is beginning to cast doubt on the seriousness of the administration’s commitment to ensuring a safe food supply.

Meanwhile, food safety scares continue, including the December recall of tons of beef from an Oklahoma wholesaler. Congress Daily reports, “Late last month, after 21 people in 16 states had become infected with E. coli and National Steak and Poultry recalled 248,000 pounds of beef products, [Rep. Rosa] DeLauro said the problem was caused by practices that USDA could easily regulate if it had an appointee to make decisions.”

The recall came the same week as a new CBS News Poll which found that Americans are less than confident in the safety of the food they eat. (Polling occurred before news of the recall.) When asked, “How would you grade the U.S. on ensuring the safety of the food supply in the U.S.?" 34 percent of respondents said “C.” 33 percent said “B” while only 7 percent said “A.” 18 percent said “D” while a possibly very bitter 6 percent gave the U.S. an “F.”

The Congress Daily article intimates that the administration may be dragging its feet on finding a nominee because of Obama’s own ethics order which prohibits lobbyists from entering government. “Administration officials have acknowledged they have had trouble filling the slot because the White House does not want to nominate a candidate who has been a lobbyist for either food companies or consumer groups.”

At this point, if the best and most-qualified person for the job also happens to be a lobbyist, I think the administration should just suck it up and issue a waiver (a move that is permissable under the ethics order). The administration should not refuse to grant a waiver at the expense of the national food safety net.

Image by Flickr user Jeremy Brooks, used under a Creative Commons license.

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