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June 15, 2009

Ominous Signs at the USDA
It appears that the USDA has learned its lesson from the botched selection process for the head of its Food and Safety Inspection Service. No, they aren't appointing a favorite of consumer advocates. What they are doing is keeping their collective mouths shut. According to my sources, someone has been selected, but his (it does appear to be a he) identity is known only to a small circle of top USDA officials. They've built a firewall around the nomination to maintain secrecy and to ensure that consumer advocates can't gain any traction with their protests. The appointment will be a fait accompli.

But one bit of information has leaked out. Adela Ramos, a former aide to Iowa's Sen. Tom Harkin, has emailed colleagues and co-workers informing them that she has been named a senior adviser to the USDA's Under secretary for Food Safety (the official name of the head of the Food Safety and Inspection Service). You don't name a senior adviser if you don't know who the senior adviser's boss is. And the bad news? She's a big fan of -- you guessed it -- food irradiation. Every one of the attempted FSIS nominees so far have shared one quality (aside from being in thrall to industry) -- a love of irradiation as the alpha and omega of food safety. With the senior adviser a committed Zap the Crapper, it's fair to assume that the Under secretary enthusiastically embraces irradiation as well.

Outside of the politics, what's clear from all this is that industrial food producers (especially livestock producers) -- and by association the USDA -- have surrendered on any attempt at truly cleaning up the food system. All they can hope to do is kill at the last possible moment all the deadly bacteria that end up deposited on their products via their flawed and unhealthy practices.

But it gets worse. One of the "Three Mikes," Mike Taylor -- the former Monsanto executive and fellow Zap the Crapper, though too politically "radioactive" for the USDA, will reportedly be named as a White House food safety czar. We'll be lucky if our food isn't glowing by the end of all this (I know, I know, irradiation doesn't make food glow!)

At this point, it's pretty clear that particular person who heads the FSIS is irrelevant. Whoever it is will be charged with selling the country on a massive increase in the amount of irradiated food on store shelves.

Assuming all this plays out as expected, the pressure point becomes -- not the USDA -- but the FDA. They control food labeling requirements for irradiated products. There is an attempt underway, begun during the Bush administration, to weaken existing requirements (including the idea of dropping the word "irradiation" entirely in favor of a less loaded term like "pasteurization"). Without strict labeling, the theory goes, the chances of a public outcry over the practice will be greatly reduced. It will thus fall to new FDA head Margaret Hamburg and her deputy Joshua Sharfstein to make the call. It's entirely unclear where they might stand on all this. And boy, does that matter. Because at this point, it looks like the USDA (and the White House) has gone full bore for Zapping the Crap.

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