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Pressure is on for Obama to fill ‘food czar' job at USDA

Jan. 20, 2010 - 09:18AM   |  
By ELIZABETH WEISE   |   Comments
Rep. Rosa DeLauro said it is critical that President Obama quickly appoint an undersecretary for food safety at the Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro said it is critical that President Obama quickly appoint an undersecretary for food safety at the Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

Calls from consumer advocates and politicians are growing louder for the Obama administration to name an undersecretary for food safety at the Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service, a position unfilled for more than a year.

It's a job with little glory but a lot of responsibility: keeping the meat, poultry, catfish and some eggs America eats safe by overseeing 9,000 inspectors who visit 7,000 slaughter and processing plants daily. The agency needs to overhaul its methods and set tough new standards for testing, consumer advocates say. Some fights they say only an undersecretary-level appointee can undertake include:

Getting needle-tenderized meat, which can push E. coli O157:H7 and salmonella deep into steaks and chops where cooking doesn't easily kill it, labeled so consumers know it shouldn't be eaten rare. A current outbreak linked to this type of meat has sickened 21 people.

Giving the USDA the right to name not just grocery stores that have sold recalled meat, but also restaurants.

Using live video to monitor animals in pens, allowing short-staffed inspectors to do more.

News that last week the Obama administration appointed well-known food-safety expert Michael Taylor to a new position, as deputy commissioner for foods, at the Food and Drug Administration, only increased the volume of those calls.

Last year alone, food-borne illnesses caused 5,000 deaths, and the FSIS forced 59 recalls of suspect food, says Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn. "It is essential that we include food safety on the list of the critical issues that need to be addressed, and that means appointing an undersecretary as soon as possible," DeLauro says.

Congress is trying to put its stamp on food safety with bills to overhaul both the FDA and USDA, but leadership roles are crucial, too, experts say.

The undersecretary, a political appointee confirmed by Congress, can push for change in ways difficult for career USDA staffers, says Richard Raymond, who held the job until September 2008.

Potential candidates whose names have been floated for the position have included Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota; Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia; and Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Currently the position is held by acting undersecretary Jerold Mande, but Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has moved "aggressively" to fill it, says USDA's Caleb Weaver. FSIS is making headway in food safety, despite lack of a head, he says.

Elizabeth Weise reports for USA Today.

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