spread of fruits and vegetables peppers kiwi salad healthy living USDA/ARS photo by Peggy Greb

Finally, a nominee for USDA food safety undersecretary

Dr. Mindy Brashears has surfaced as the nominee for the top food safety position in the U.S. government.

For those of us who have followed this issue of a long-standing vacancy in the top food safety position in the U.S. government, the nomination of Dr. Mindy Brashears comes as no surprise.

Why it took so long to make the nomination once the cat was out of the bag is anyone’s guess.

But an excellent nomination it is, so I guess the end result, whenever it happens, will be worth the wait. What a wait is was.

The Office of the Undersecretary for Food Safety has had an empty chair since my old friend and colleague, Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, left Dec. 13, 2013. Yep, four and one-half long years ago.

For those who may not know, this position requires a Senate confirmation, with the initial hearing historically being conducted by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry; hence my “whenever it happens” statement.

Trump nominees have taken an average of 84 days to get Senate confirmation, a length of time much longer than the historical average.

Let’s assume that average holds Dr. Brashears, who has a Ph.D. in Food Science from Oklahoma State University. That means she may actually sit in my old chair in the Jamie Whitten Building sometime in early August.

The term for President Trump ends in January, 2021. That gives her guaranteed employment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture of only two years and five months.

Even for someone as experienced, talented and smart as Brashears is, the first six months or more in this position is more than a steep learning curve; it is a vertical ascent.

She probably knows and is liked by most of the players in big ag; after all, she helped BPI win its verdict against ABC last summer as an expert witness.

But that involvement will not endear her with many of the Food Safety Alliance members in D.C.  She is already being called a “corporate hack”, and the financial compensation for her time by BPI put up as their opinion of an example of one who can be bought. She will need to get on the good side of these folks before she can implement any significant changes in food safety.

That also leads to a more difficult Senate confirmation, and maybe a more drawn out timeframe.

Two years and a few months are not very long in the D.C. environment. This nomination could have been made a long, long time ago; and should have been.

There are about 650 political positions in D.C. that require Presidential nomination and Senate confirmation. For those that come from outside the Beltway, I was advised that one-half return home before the first year is over. I did not sell my home when I moved. Mindy should not either.

All that said, the 84 days is just an average. That means some take much longer. There are three other Presidential nominations for positions at USDA already ahead of her.

I anticipate that this one will be in that “much longer” category because of the BPI-ABC involvement, but I hope not.

If it is, consider what Dr. Brashears is being asked to do.

Pack up and move, leave your friends and colleagues at Texas Tech, find a new residence, learn a new city’s ins and out, sell off any stocks and bonds that may imply a conflict, gain the trust of the lifer bureaucrats at the Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS), earn the trust of Secretary Sonny Perdue, make the NGOs happy with your selection, meet the key food safety players in Congress, get the media on her side and on and on.

Heck, she also will need to learn the aisles of a new grocery store, how the metro lines work and where the best walking/biking trails are. She will need them for some rest and relaxation.

All of that in a little over two years.

Is it a wonder anyone would accept this challenge in the timeframe represented?

I am glad Brashears has, and I wish her all the luck in the world. I have a feeling she will need it.

Those lifers at FSIS that don’t agree with her politics or positions on food safety know they may only have to ride this appointment out for a little over two years and then they go back to being without an undersecretary with the clout for creating change. 

For how long? Another four and one-half years?

Let’s hope not, and let’s hope Brashears beats the average tenure of the last, and only, four preceding undersecretaries of just three years and three months.

BTW, I remain the only dude to sit in that chair. No, I do not know what the significance of that is.

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