Food Safety Versus Playing Nice: Filling the Post at FSIS

With the announcement today of a Class 1 (meaning could be deadly if eaten) recall of nearly 40,000 pounds of ground beef for E Coli contamination (Hat tip to Obamafoodorama), in addition to another 300,000 pounds of beef recalled last month, it grows ever more important that we have a person in charge of the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) at the USDA, which monitors meat, poultry and eggs. Why is this administration dithering? Guest blogger Tom Laskawy has some thoughts on the matter:

It really does seem like Tom Vilsack can’t find anyone to run the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. You wouldn’t think it would be that hard. There must be dozens of scientists and food safety experts who fit the bill. But this, of course, is the USDA we’re talking about — the poster child for regulatory capture, the phenomenon whereby a regulator acts almost entirely in the interests of its target industry rather than in the interests of the public.

As a result, the head of the FSIS is typically a scientist or doctor with, if not direct ties to the food industry, then at least a career that puts him or her firmly in the industrial food mainstream. For example, the last two heads of FSIS have been Elsa Murano, a Texas A&M scientist who is now that institution’s president and Richard Raymond who, before heading FSIS, was Nebraska’s Chief Medical Officer and a senior official in its Health and Human Services department. While competent officials, these folks are not crusading reformers, which is just the way the food industry likes it.

Indeed, the word is from within the USDA that, in the wake of the Swine Flu epidemic, USDA Chief Tom Vilsack wants to throw a bone to the livestock industry in particular with the FSIS appointment. Presumably, he’s gotten a shortlist from Big Meat and has been working his way down it. The problem here isn’t that they can’t find a qualified candidate. The problem is that it appears the industry has embraced a particular brand of food safety, with irradiation and chemical treatment of processed meat at its core. The three candidates mentioned for the post so far, Michael Osterholm, Michael Taylor (though it’s unclear if he was really up for the job) and Mike Doyle (so many Mikes!) are all champions of what Marion Nestle likes to call “late-stage techno-fixes.” Or, as Obamafoodorama puts it, “Zap the crap!” But even worse, they are extremely closely tied to the industries they are meant to regulate — each of the three has at some point performed work for a regulated company or an industry group.

As a result, they have all provoked strong responses from consumer and sustainable food advocates which appear to have successfully punctured every trial balloon Vilsack has floated. In the past, it’s hard to imagine that such protests would have gotten very far at the USDA, so I think you have to look at the empty chair at FSIS as a weird sort of victory. With the outcry over food safety in the media and new legislation pending in Congress, the pressure to get someone in there must be enormous. As a result, we’ve reached a bit of a stalemate since the industry — out of hubris or ignorance or both — has proposed a series of scientists who are out of step with the public on their approach to food safety to go along with their severe conflicts of interest. Ironically, according to this Roll Call article, Caroline Smith deWaal, head of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest and a favorite among consumer groups for the FSIS post, registered as a lobbyist (as part of her job at CSPI). Her lobbyist status has been held up as a disqualifier, naturally. In reality, the food industry would never have swallowed such a powerful consumer activist as head of the USDA’s food safety division. Nor would they accept food safety lawyer (and notable WSU alum) Bill Marler as their overseer — he was also reportedly vetted and then passed over for the post.

But with both sides having been given veto power over the post, it remains empty. And rumors coming out of the USDA suggest that they have simply run out of candidates. Another way of looking at it is that the food industry, having been given the chance to put one of their own in the post, doesn’t seem to understand that the rules have changed, if slightly. In the end, they will undoubtedly find someone and it will likely be someone whose record is thin enough that neither side will find they can mount an adequate campaign against him or her. Whether Vilsack’s threading that needle will give the USDA’s food safety operation a strong advocate or a milquetoast is very much an open question. The performance so far of one of Vilsack’s other “compromise” candidates, Janey Thornton at the Federal Nutrition Service, has not given me a lot of faith. In the meantime, food safety in this country isn’t getting any better.

UPDATE: It’s been pointed out that ex-Monsanto man Mike Taylor, though a former acting head of FSIS under Clinton, was in fact up most recently for the chairmanship of the newly formed President’s Food Safety Working Group. He apparently did not get it — Vilsack and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sibelius are in charge. However, he may or may not still be serving on the working group. Despite the group’s spanking new website, the administration hasn’t released the names of anyone who’s serving on it. The administration’s food safety stalemate applies over there as well.

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