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A few minutes with USDA's Dr. Mindy Brashears: The most important woman in food safety

A few minutes with USDA's Dr. Mindy Brashears: The most important woman in food safety

We talk with Dr. Mindy Brashears, a well-respected food safety professional with an impressive international record in developing and promoting animal agriculture.

The position of undersecretary of agriculture for food safety has been all but abandoned for the past few years. It was a place for rock stars of the food industry to shine. People I've had the honor to know like Dr. Dick Raymond and Dr. Elsa Murano as well as influential people like Dr. Catherine Woteki and Dr. Elizabeth Hagen sat in the chair.

The office that provided critical oversight for the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS); the U.S. Department Agriculture's public health agency that regulates meat, poultry and processed egg products, sat empty for five years.

Last year, President Donald Trump nominated Dr. Mindy Brashears. A well-respected food safety professional with an impressive international record in developing and promoting animal agriculture, she still sat for over a year without official Congressional approval. In January, USDA secretary Sonny Perdue decided to move the balky cart a few more blocks up Washington's often steep 'Hill' and named her deputy undersecretary, a position that does not need approval. It has allowed her to take up the reins of the office and begin important work while awaiting the final Senate imprimatur.

I've interviewed her several times in the past and she's always been an excellent subject, refreshingly candid and honest with her replies. So, right after she was appointed, I asked her to talk with me 'on the record.' While confirmation was pending, though, it wasn't possible. A few days ago, I received a text message from her saying she could finally talk with the press.

Here's what she had to say:

Q. You were nominated to fill the very important post of undersecretary of agriculture for food safety a year ago, a post that had been left vacant for more than 5 years. What was your reaction when you were first asked to take the spot?

A. I was initially contacted in late 2016. My first reaction was basically, “I’m honored to be considered” but, in reality, I never thought I would actually be selected for the position.

I was asked if I was willing to be considered, and I said “yes,” being unaware of the path that was before me. Looking back, I am glad it worked out that way. Had someone put a roadmap in front of me that illustrated the entire process from beginning to end, I don’t know if I would have ever said, “yes” in the beginning because the road is long. Taking the baby steps in small increments helped me to keep going. I can tell you that it is not an easy process. Everything about my life became an open book to the public. This included opposition that wanted to discredit me at every turn. My family and I knew the public criticism that would come from this nomination, and we chose to step into that and stand firm through the public scrutiny. 

No one could really describe the day-to-day to me, but now I understand that is because of the variety of issues and topics that are brought up. It requires constant focus and it is intense, but I enjoy it. I want to learn as much about the agency and the policies as I possibly can. As a scientist, working at a science-based agency is very important to me and I am dedicated to make data-driven and science-based decisions. I can honestly say that I am loving it and the best part is the fact that I have expanded my circle of colleagues to include some amazing folks at FSIS. They are awesome!

Q. Your work at Texas Tech and in Central America certainly brought you to the attention of the folks in Washington. Could I ask you to brag just a little bit and tell us about your pre-Washington accomplishments – the professional and personal achievements that bring a smile to your face?

A. I have spent my entire career preparing for this job -- not intentionally, but experientially.  I began my career on August 13, 1997, as an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska. The reason why I remember the exact date is because it was the day of the Hudson Foods ground beef recall, which was, at the time, the largest recall in history (25 million lb.). I was hired as an assistant professor to cover extension and research which meant that when the media called, I was on deck to answer to them. I did several interviews that first day and experienced first-hand the impact of an outbreak and recall on a company.

The company eventually closed up and the state of Nebraska invested funding into pre-harvest food safety. It set my career on a path of applied research using the processing plant as our research lab We did some of the first in-plant validation studies in Nebraska and that work continued at Texas Tech University (TTU).  I was fortunate to work with amazing faculty and graduate students to build teams to solve problems through research and educational programs. I ended up with multiple patents for new technologies that earned me a spot in the National Academy of Inventors. Texas Tech and the University of Nebraska fully supported me and allowed me to have the academic freedom to achieve big things.

One of the biggest accomplishments of my life is our work in Central America. My husband (Dr. Todd Brashears) and I worked hard to develop a program, the SOWER scholars program (Sustaining our World through Education & Research), where we brought interns and graduate students to TTU to train them so they could go back to their home countries to build the intellectual capacity and agriculture community in their countries. Again, this wasn’t something we sought out, it just happened through Divine intervention.

One day about eight years ago we were in Honduras doing validation research studies with a beef processing facility that was trying to get U.S. export approval. I received a phone call from the hotel lobby that there was a man there who wanted to see me. He had heard that there was a team from TTU there and he wanted to talk to us. Dr. Mark Miller and I went down to visit with this man, Ricardo Paz, who asked us to “re-build the cattle industry in Honduras.”  He had been running a feedyard in Honduras and it had recently closed, so there was a crisis situation developing as more and more cattle were leaving the country.  

Again, I thought, “I’m honored to be asked but…How does one go about re-building the cattle industry for a country?”  Mark, Todd and I worked together to put together a multi-dimensional team to attack this situation. Todd worked on the educational side and studied the human impact of building cattle farms and beef processing plants and the impact on quality of life and food security. Mark worked on meat quality and animal production. I worked on food safety.  We brought in animal nutrition experts and other areas to achieve this goal. We couldn’t superimpose cattle systems from the U.S. into Honduras. We couldn’t feed corn to cattle because the people needed the corn and it was grown in limited supply. We asked ourselves, “What do they have?”

We developed a diet that was based on palm kernel meal because palm kernel oil is a major commodity in Honduras. The meal was combined with sugar cane and poultry litter and to make a very long story short, we were able to produce cattle in half of the time that had 50 lb. more of edible meat on the carcass. The day that we had cattle with real marbling that were produced in Honduras was amazing! They now have two plants that are approved for U.S. export, as well as to other countries -- and the industry is growing.

We also facilitated the export of Red Angus bulls to breed with their Brahman females.  We trained multiple graduate students through this program and many have received M.S. or Ph.D. degrees. Some have even returned to Honduras to fill in industry gaps. The work was very rewarding and Ricardo Paz, the gentleman that came to us many years ago, now sits in the government position that is equivalent to my position in Honduras. Life is amazing. Go where God leads and it will stun you!

Q. Knowing the uncertainty of politics, you took a great leap of faith – something you have in abundance – uprooted your very rewarding life in Lubbock and moved to Washington while you awaited confirmation. Tell me about that year in limbo.

A. The confirmation process has been a test of patience. I’ve developed perseverance, my faith has grown, and I fully believe the final Senate confirmation will come.

I had an incredible life in Lubbock, Texas, and I am thankful for that. I had great success, I lived close to family and friends and was extremely happy. I had amazing students and was able to work with the best group of food and meat scientists at the greatest University in our field (I disclose my bias here). I mentored graduate students and watched them go into industry or academia and grow in their careers. We were doing in-plant research in the United States, Central America, and Australia to solve real-world industry problems. Life was good. However, have you ever looked at Facebook “memories” and realized that you live the same life over and over again each year at the same time? This offer made me realize that there was even more that I could do in my field.

When I was asked whether I would consider the nomination, I knew this was a calling on my life that God placed before me. I am here for a reason and I remind myself of this every day. I always tell people to, “Say yes to new adventures” and now I faced a situation where I was the one facing a new adventure. It was time to grow and learn something new. Not only did I have to leave my lab, research program, students, colleagues and friends, I had to give up a company that we had recently formed. I gave up a lot familiarity but I knew that if I didn’t go, I would regret the missed opportunity

My life is very different living in D.C., but the job is fulfilling, and we have access to the arts, great restaurants, museums and many cultural opportunities. Life is different, but it is a good different. I miss my friends and family every single day, but I know what I am doing now is growing me to be who I need to be in the next segment of my life.

Q. In late January, USDA secretary Sonny Perdue got creative and named you deputy undersecretary so you could get to work. Although it was a great ‘work around’ until you could receive official confirmation, you couldn’t exercise functions expressly delegated to Senate-confirmed positions. What were you able to do during the past six months?

A. As of now, almost all duties of the undersecretary have been delegated to me as deputy undersecretary so I can operate under the full functioning of the position. I have twice passed the Senate Ag committee vote, but I am still waiting for the full confirmation. While I hope to have full senate confirmation and believe it will come, I do not focus on that on a daily basis. I have a job to do and that is to keep the U.S. food supply safe. I’m not seeking a title. I am seeking safe food for our nation.

I have taken the leadership role very seriously. I don’t think anyone can be an effective leader until they know the organization, so I have spent a tremendous amount of time learning policies and all of the details of the FSIS (from fleet management to budgets to human resource needs to the legal challenges). I am meeting our employees and asking questions. Carmen Rottenberg, Paul Kiecker and I make a great team. We work well together and our expertise compliments each other. They are dedicated public servants and have taught me so much. Our other FSIS employees are amazing as well. Of course, I love our scientists and talking data with them but I also enjoying visiting the field and our inspectors who keep our food safe on a daily basis. I fully support our modernization efforts and look forward to seeing them implemented.

In March, I signed an agreement with Frank Yiannis, deputy commissioner at the Food & Drug Administration, to oversee the regulation of cell-based foods. He and I are working together to solidify a strong relationship between FSIS and FDA. I am also working to roll-out modernization policies that started before my tenure here, while simultaneously working on some of my own science-based programs that I look forward to revealing soon.

I know it has been said that I will not have enough time to get anything done, but I can tell you that I do something important every single day. There is never a day that a big decision isn’t made. Being able to my leadership skills and apply my knowledge to the food safety mission is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I am grateful for it.

6. Now that you’ve been confirmed as deputy undersecretary for food safety and can fully exercise all the ‘rights and privileges’ of the office, what are the top three items on your to-do list?

A. Now in my current role as deputy undersecretary, I have three big issues I want to address. I will continue to focus on these issues once I am confirmed:

  1. Pathogen control with an emphasis on Salmonella. We are working on many policies, as well as science-based approaches, to control Salmonella in meat and poultry systems in new and innovate ways. I have brought my scientific perspective into the agency and combined them with the expertise and policies we already have in place and I think we can make great progress. I have a “dream team” of scientists at my fingertips and they are the best!  I have access to the best labs, methods and also a set of isolates that are collected in a methodical and continuous basis. These isolates are well-characterized using the same validated methods across our labs and we have a wealth of information on our isolates from WGS to AMR to time/location/source. It is an amazing opportunity to find some answers.
     
  2. The second focus is recruitment. First of all, I want to recruit veterinary inspectors. I have a high standard for wanting the best and brightest employees. We have hired a vet recruiter who has been visiting vet schools with me to make students and faculty aware of the opportunities for careers at FSIS. She is also developing curriculum that can be used in the classroom. We hope to target individuals entering vet schools to find a profile of people who want to work in food safety. We also have scholarships and loan payment programs for incentives to recruit top notch students and we want the best!  I have personally met many inspectors in the field and they love their jobs and are great at what they do. We are also looking at the requirements for CSI and food inspectors and plan to increase our hiring for those positions as well.
     
  3. Consumer education in third on the list. Recent consumer studies supported by FSIS and conducted with RTI and NC State indicate that we are not seeing improvements in behavioral changes in consumers in regard to food handling. I am working closely with Frank Yiannas at FDA on this as we plan to partner with stakeholders to identify how consumers are mishandling foods and also to develop educational programs that can actually result in behavior changes. Stay tuned for some exciting opportunities.

Q. I’ve known several people who have held your new office and all of them had a vision for what it should be. Tell me about your yours.

My vision is simple and builds on Secretary Perdue’s motto for the department which is “Do Right and Feed Everyone.” My vision is to “Do Right and Feed Everyone…Safely!”

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