Food safety takes a back seat at USDA—Again.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is tasked with two mandates that are often in conflict—protecting the agriculture and food industry and protecting US consumers from contaminated and unsafe food. For far too many years, food safety has come in a distant second in USDA’s order of priorities.

Joe Biden’s choice of Tom Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture is a clear indicator that nothing is likely to change in the coming years.

I have been advocating for decades for the formation of a single agency—preferably one with a seat at the Cabinet table—to oversee the safety of the US food supply. Other countries have done this successfully.

Until the United States can rationalize its overlapping, conflict-of-interest laden regulatory system, consumers can count on a continuing stream of foodborne disease outbreaks and product recalls.

Phyllis Entis, MSc.


The following opinion piece was written by Dan Flynn, Managing Editor of Food Safety News. It first appeared in Food Safety News on December 10, 2020, and is reposted here with permission.

Letter From The Editor: We wish there was a difference, but there’s not

If you are recently out of office as a popular agricultural state governor and your campaign for president went bust, getting yourself appointed as Secretary of Agriculture is your next logical option.  But if you’ve already done that: Why would you do it again?

Tom Vilsack, who served as Secretary of Agriculture for Barack Obama’s entire presidency, is going to take another run at the job, once the Biden Presidency gets up and running. He’ll be giving up a job that most everyone in Washington D.C. really wants — being president and CEO of a national association. He’s been President and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council since 2017. 

These are the jobs where seven-figure salaries are possible and the expense accounts are very attractive. Until he took the Export Council job, Vilsack’s salary almost always came from a government pay schedule. Only Vilsack can say why he wants to be Secretary of Agriculture again.

He left food safety at the USDA in a somewhat peculiar state. After Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, who Obama appointed as Under Secretary for Food Safety, left the department in December 2013, the government’s top food safety job was left vacant.

Today, the fresh produce lobby could hardly restrain itself when learning Vilsack’s back. They said it was “under his steady leadership we worked together to further the gains of the industry and broaden access to fresh fruits and vegetables, particularly for children.”

It was  Vilsack who was on one end of the deal that led to the murder of the Microbiological Data Program (MDP) that provided the only meaningful harvest time testing of fruits and vegetables in the United States. The industry wanted it killed and Vilsack was a willing co-conspirator. Could the secretary have saved the mere $5 million a year program for testing at land-grant universities? In a heartbeat.

Instead of naming a new Under Secretary for Food Safety, as required by law, Obama let Vilsack name Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) Administrator Al Almanza as a Deputy Under Secretary. It put the FSIS boss in a position to provide his own food safety oversight. No Senate confirmation or oversight was required for the post.

Vilsack’s move left the Obama administration without an Under Secretary for Food Safety for longer than it had one. No one in Congress seemed to know or care.

If anyone has proof that Tom Vilsack knows or cares about food safety, it might be a good time for them to come forward.

As governor of Iowa, he was known for the famous Taylor’s Maid-Rite exemption for the Marshalltown, IA, restaurant’s reckless cooking practice for loose meat. Loose meat sandwiches are mostly an Iowa thing, and Taylor’s in Marshalltown made them using a cooker that was ripe for cross-contamination.

While he was governor, Vilsack protected Taylor’s and the few others who risked food safety by winking at cross-contamination.

Vilsack and Trump’s Secretary of Agriculture “Sonny” Perdue are really two peas in a pod. Both are former ag state governors who are plugged into the industry. Just as Vilsack’s loose meat history does not add up to much of a good safety record, Perdue did not exactly run to the scene in his state when he was governor of the 2008 Salmonella outbreak caused by Peanut Corporation of American peanuts and paste either.

No one much cared about that when Perdue’s appointment as ag secretary went through four years ago. But what they care about is that USDA net farm income is projected to total $120 billion for 2020, up to $38 billion over 2019. Direct government farm payments drive that number and Perdue’s name is associated with every dollar that goes out.

And, now we can strike “Sonny’s” name and substitute “Tom Vilsack.” It’s part of a system, but one that we just cannot say has anything to do with food safety, which is always touted as a top USDA priority.

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