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January 26, 2010

And the Winner of the USDA's Food Safety Sweepstakes Is...

Dr. Elizabeth Hagen! No, you're not expected to know who she is. Suffice it to say that, as anticipated, USDA Chief Tom Vilsack turned to an under-the-radar choice for Under Secretary of Food Safety. Hagen, currently the USDA's Chief Medical Officer, will, if confirmed, take charge of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which is responsible for the safety of meat and poultry products.

The interesting aspect of this pick is that she is an infectious disease doc and public health specialist who has been working at USDA for several years -- and thus should have a good grounding in food safety methods. It also means both the Under Secretary of Food Safety as well as the administrator of FSIS itself, Dr. Jerold Mande, will be medical doctors. One can hope we will on longer hear things like "I have to look at the entire industry, not just what is best for public health," coming from top FSIS administrators.

Hagen joined the USDA during the Bush administration so she's neither a fresh face nor someone who is untainted by the food safety failings of the last few years. But neither does she appear to be an industry flunky. While I would have preferred an outsider who might come in and shake up the ossified USDA food safety culture, that was clearly too much to ask. It's also true that no one outside of USDA seems to have had many dealings with Hagen, but hope abounds (via Food Safety News):

Carol Tucker-Foreman, a distinguished fellow at The Food Policy Institute at Consumer Federation of America, responded to the announcement with guarded optimism.

"Consumer advocates who work closely with the FSIS on policy issues have had limited direct experience with Dr. Hagen. We have been told, however, that she has been a strong advocate for improved food safety policies and has urged the agency to be more aggressive in asking companies to initiate recalls."

Better recalls are certainly a start (if for no other reason than to give bloggers a break). Yet it strikes me that nothing in the pick undermines the argument that the FDA's newly minted deputy commissioner for foods Michael Taylor is the true "national" head of food safety right now. That's neither a good nor a bad thing, just political reality. And with the top jobs now filled, there's no further excuse for inaction.

At some point soon, in the course of fixing our broken system, Hagen and Taylor will have to take a stand: Is the future of meat safety in this country one of decontamination and post-hoc treatments for routinely infected products (aka "Zap the Crap")? Or will the USDA attack the root causes of pathogens in our meat -- an unrelenting focus on low quality, high quantity production methods. Dr. Hagen, please surprise us.

This post originally appeared on Grist.org

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