Letter from the Editor: Vacancy says food safety not a priority

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    I’m pretty jaded when it comes to the federal government — no matter who is running it. But I do know that without filling the spokes in the government’s wheels nothing is going to happen. And some spokes are more important than others.

    Faithful readers know Food Safety News is counting the days for the appointment by President Trump and confirmation by the U.S. Senate of the next USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety.

    The USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety vacancy has now existed for more than 1,350 days. It’s now one of a dozen top jobs at USDA where there’s either been no nomination from the president or no confirmation vote from the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

    Six nominations are pending. The Under Secretary for Food Safety, a mission-critical post for USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the Office of Food Safety, and federal leadership in general,  is one of the six for which as yet there is no nominee.

    President Trump and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue appear to have priorities that do not include food safety. Two of the six pending nominations speak not to priorities, but to Perdue’s need for help: his deputy, Stephen Censky, and general counsel, Stephen Alexander Vaden.

    Appointments taking priority over food safety include William Northey at the farm and foreign agriculture services; Gregory Ibach at marketing and regulatory services; Ted McKinney at trade and foreign agricultural affairs; and the controversial Samuel H. Clovis Jr. at research, education and economics.

    Perdue, in fact, is moving the U.S. Codex Office from FSIS to the new Trade and Foreign Agriculture Affairs (TFAA) office. Former Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety Brian Ronholm told Food Safety News readers this past week that’s a “big mistake.

    Ronholm explained how “this realignment will undermine the United States’ credibility in the international food policy arena…”

    One thing Ronholm did not say is that Codex under FSIS has been a transparent government program. Under FSIS, Codex is an open program involving all the governmental and non-governmental entities that want to be involved.  Trade offices are always about secrets and Mitch Rapp-like security.

    It easy to make a decision to go dark when the lights are already out in the office of Under Secretary for Food Safety.

    And, another issue I am wondering about is opening the U.S. to poultry slaughtered in China. The FSIS last week released audit findings of equivalence for China’s poultry inspection system as it relates to only to processing and packaging of chicken products.

    At this point, the chickens China processes for sale in the United States must come from the U.S., Canada or Chile. China wants to slaughter, process and export its chickens to the United States. Trump traders pretty much agreed to that in May in exchange for China opening its doors to U.S. beef.

    But food safety experts have serious doubts about China because of its past performance. The People’s Republic of China has not only rolled from one food safety scandal to another during the past decade, but it also has seen repeated avian flu outbreaks. This has included seeing the flu jump from birds to humans.

    Is it Secretary Perdue’s plan to open the U.S. market to Chinese chicken without an Under Secretary for Food Safety at FSIS?

    It look like it is.

    Moving Codex to the new trade office and allowing China to send its chickens to the United States are decisions that are going down without input from the Under Secretary for Food Safety.

    Frankly, I think this vacancy going on for almost four years is vastly more important than whether someone can find a lab coat for Professor Clovis. He might do a horrible job supervising those USDA scientists. He might do a fine job. On food safety, though, we know the job ain’t being done at all.

    President Obama let the post remain vacant for the last three years of his tenure, and it’s a secondary concern at best for Perdue and the Trump Administration. We wonder why. As we’ve reported before, since the office was created by Congress some 23 years ago, it is almost as often vacant as filled. We doubt seriously it is due to oversight or accident.

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