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July 10, 2009

USDA Shilling Around with Food Safety
I love it. Big Ag seriously knows how to pick them. Tom Philpott at Grist is reporting that our very own Dennis Wolff, Pennsylvania's Secretary of Agriculture, is a finalist for the USDA's top food safety post -- the Under secretary for Food Safety. His name has been floated for a number of USDA positions (including Ag Sec) and now his backers have found a new spot for him. And what expertise in public health, food safety or science does he bring to the post? Would you believe, "none"? As Philpott puts it:
Dennis Wolff would be an odd choice for this job--especially in an administration that promises change, or for that matter, experienced professionals in key roles. A look at Wolff's official bio reveals no discernible experience as a food-safety regulator. (Many states run offices that inspect meat plants; Pennsylvania is not among them. All meatpacking in Pennsylvania is overseen by the USDA, not Wolff's ag department.)
Here in PA, Wolff is known best for his attempt to ban "rBST-free" (i.e. "artificial hormone-free") labels on milk, which only failed after a massive public outcry and a rebuke (in the form of a veto) by Gov. Ed Rendell. But in that effort at least he knew what he was doing -- to this day he has a Holstein operation (though now reportedly in the genetics business, not dairy production). Having a large-scale Holstein man making abrupt changes in milk labeling policy smelled a bit funny to me. That, I remember thinking at the time, was not conflict of interest we can believe in.

Indeed, if you really want to get deep in the weeds on all things Wolff, go here and see how laughably and closely tied he is to industry and advocacy groups (and, of course, Monsanto) who have been pushing for the expanded use of rBST for years. He comes off as little more than a shill, full stop. The capper, as Obamafoodorama observed last November, has to be Wolff's creation of his own little astroturf group "made up of Big Ag lobbyists and Monsanto employees" to provide wonkish cover for the labeling change. Good times.

Oh and he's also a big supporter of a nasty Pennsylvania law (again via Ob Fo) which:
... gives the Pennsylvania state attorney general's office the authority to sue municipalities over local farm ordinances deemed to exceed state law... The ACRE initiative is essentially a grassy version of eminent domain that's skewed to benefit Big Ag and demolish family farms, organic growers, and anyone who's interested in keeping Big Ag off the local land.
And what, you have a right to ask, does any of this have to do with food safety? How's this for an answer: absolutely nothing. The USDA's (and Big Ag's) response to the food safety crisis and the sudden boost in food safety authority given to the FDA appears to have been to hunker down. They want a guy they can rely on to insulate them as much as possible from any radical change.

In the process, they have accomplished something really amazing -- they have made former Monsanto exec and new FDA Special Advisor for Food Safety Mike Talyor look like a breath of fresh air. If, that is, your breath hasn't already been taken away by the idea of a shill lacking any meaningful background or accomplishment regarding food safety in charge of your meat.

In fairness, it's true that Vilsack just appointed a Deputy Under secretary of Food Safety -- Jerold Mande, most recently of Yale -- who appears to have an appropriate background. But you only make Dennis Wolff Mande's boss if you want to make sure Mande toes the industry line.

At a certain point, it just makes you want to throw up -- your arms at least -- in surrender. Because if these rumors are true and Tom Vilsack at the USDA appoints Dennis Wolff to run food safety there, Big Ag will have taken Obama's message of reform and responded with that Reagan-era chestnut: Just Say No.

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Anonymous Health Shop said...

Great read! Thanx for the post

Anonymous koi fish said...

Well, that's politics for ya. Most positions are filled from the top without getting elected. When you get to dictate your everyday business, it's more than just a bad headache.

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