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Strengthening Checks and Balances

Food Fight: Fighting for Food Safety Without a Champion

Photo: Ian Westcott / Flickr

As you get ready to feast on turkey this Thanksgiving, one thing you can be thankful for is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).

FSIS, which has an annual budget of nearly $1 billion, is responsible for inspecting most meat and processed egg products, making it less likely that you will get sick from eating contaminated meat or drinking store-bought eggnog. FSIS inspectors check to ensure that companies are not selling diseased or otherwise contaminated meat—including turkey—aren’t adding harmful additives, and aren’t inaccurately reporting weight and ingredient information on the packaging.

Unfortunately, the position that oversees FSIS, the Under Secretary for Food Safety, has been vacant since December 2013. Successive administrations have failed to prioritize nominating qualified experts for the job, leaving it vacant for roughly half the time the job has existed over the last two and a half decades. “Someone was at the job just 13 out of those 24 years,” Richard Raymond, former Under Secretary of Food Safety during the George W. Bush administration, told Food Safety News earlier this year. “Not acceptable.”

Because the position has been vacant for almost four years, the Federal Vacancies Reform Act causes problems for anyone who might do the job in an “acting” capacity. The law prevents administrations from bypassing the Senate confirmation process by using “acting” officials to fill important vacancies long-term. With the top spot vacant, FSIS is currently led by the Acting FSIS Administrator, who is overseen by an Acting Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety. As neither of these positions require Senate confirmation, acting officials can run both indefinitely if needed. A permanent Under Secretary would give FSIS a strong advocate who would report to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and could more easily coordinate with Perdue and with Congress, the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control, international organizations, and foreign governments.

As Raymond recently wrote, “This is the nation’s top food safety official. This person can affect the health and safety of every American except those strict vegans who eat no meat or poultry products. Other political appointees at the USDA may have an influence over the health and safety of a select few….But this one has a much broader scope of potential impact with dire consequences.”

Besides overseeing FSIS, the Under Secretary also oversees the US Codex Office, an interagency partnership that develops “science-based food standards” and is a key player in establishing global standards for biotechnology, growth hormones, pesticides, and additives in imported and exported food. However, the Trump administration announced that it will move this office out of the public health side of USDA and put it under a trade-focused office. FSIS’s influence on the global stage would be harmed if it were perceived as an advocate for American businesses, rather than an advocate for consumer health. An FDA spokesperson told Politico last month that they had raised concerns about the proposed move and warned they would have to “adapt” their relationship to the Codex Office if the move goes through.

Former Under Secretary Raymond has also spoken out against the plan. The fear that trade is being put over food safety is “confirmed by the lack of an Undersecretary for food safety who might have advised against this move, and even campaigned in the halls of Congress to maintain the status quo, a status that had very high international respect,” Raymond wrote in a recent op-ed.

Secretary Perdue knows first-hand what can happen when government regulators don’t adequately hold the food industry to account. While Perdue was governor of Georgia, a peanut-processing company in his state was responsible for one of the nation’s worst food-borne diseases outbreaks. Salmonella-tainted peanut butter produced by the company killed nine and sickened hundreds of others across the country.

Some reporting suggests that President Trump and Secretary Perdue may be close to nominating an Under Secretary for Food Safety, but there have been no official public statements to back that up.

Perdue and Trump should work to ensure that the federal government is as effective as it can be in ensuring the safety of the food we eat. They can do this by nominating a qualified individual to be the Under Secretary for Food Safety.