On Saturday it was reported that Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Dennis Wolff is stepping down from his position to “pursue opportunities in agriculture in the private sector.” This is not surprising, considering that PA governor Ed Rendell was looking to get rid of Wolff. But now that Wolff is hunting for a job, we thought it valuable here at Civil Eats to revisit why Dennis Wolff is not qualified for the role as head of the Food Safety and Inspection Service at the USDA — a vital position overseeing America’s meat, egg and dairy supply — where he has previously been floated as a candidate.
The position has been vacant for months, perhaps because of the difficulties finding a candidate without lobbying ties that industry lobbyists won’t kick up too much dust about. But food safety is one of the most pressing domestic issues our country faces, and meat specifically has seen massive recalls as of late. The head of FSIS will by necessity need to take a more regulatory position at the USDA — a government office ridden with conflict of interest between promoting agriculture and regulating it — if we have hope of eating safer food. Therefore having someone in charge of this essential agency with experience and without industry ties is critical.
Unfortunately Wolff is disqualified on both counts. Not only does he have no previous food safety experience, but Wolff also is best known for siding with Monsanto to push for a ban on labeling rBGH, a growth hormone, in milk (we’ve written more about the politics and health effects of rBGH here, here, and here).
Tom Philpott wrote on the controversy:
In October 2007, [Wolff] moved to prevent his state’s dairy farmers from labeling their milk free of an artificial, genetically modified growth hormone called rBGH, then marketed by Monsanto. The ban of rBGH-free labels came down after some dairy processors began to demand milk grown without the synthetic hormone.
The act was widely read as a blatant attempt to protect his state’s large-scale dairy farms that relied on rBGH, as well as the interests of the company that marketed it, Monsanto. The GMO giant had been lobbying for years for a nationwide ban on rBGH labeling; in Wolff, they finally had a taker, in an important dairy state. Wolff’s official rationale: rBGH-free labels “confuse the pubic.” In an article at the time, New York Times reporter Andy Martin took a long, hard look at Wolff’s official reasoning. His conclusion: “It’s hard … to find much merit in Mr. Wolff’s arguments for the labeling ban.”
The ban generated so much outrage (much of it from dairy farmers who rejected rBGH use) that within months, Pennsylvania Gov. Rendell intervened to reverse it.
The trend of resisting the ban on labeling of rBGH milk products has continued into other states, like Kansas and Ohio, part of a growing movement of consumers who prefer to know what is in their food rather than being left in the dark. Should Wolff be circulating as a candidate again at the USDA, the administration should take into consideration that posting him could unleash consumer outrage, and would fail to make our food system safer.