November is a month of symbolism. A day of Thanksgiving, a day of remembrance and honor, and a day of elections.
I am writing this food safety blog on Nov. 6, national mid-term election day; a day the United States should pause to remember those who fought for our Independence and signed that Declaration in 1776 that formed a new strategy for self-governing by the people.
And Veteran’s Day is close behind; a day to remember those who have fought many wars to maintain our independence and to help others obtain the same.
I am not going to discuss politics today, but I will predict that we will find that Americans, John Q Public and Joe Six Pack included, will use their votes to express their dissatisfaction with how our elected officials are running this country.
And with that thought, I will also predict that in two years, we will see a new President elected.
So what does this election and the one in two years have to do with food safety?
Actually, in addition to California’s Proposition 12, quite a bit.
The last time we had an undersecretary for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, (the country’s top food safety official, by the way), was mid-December, 2013, when my old friend and former co-worker, Elisabeth Hagen M.D., left the position after approximately three years and three months.
Three years and three months, around 1,200 days, is the same time period that the three undersecretaries prior served. There have only been four undersecretaries for food safety since Congress created the Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) in 1993 as a standalone mission area, free from marketing meat and poultry products and administering the school lunch program and food stamps.
Twenty-five years later, the chair in the Jamie Whitten Building housing the USDA and FSIS has only had an occupant keeping the seat warm for approximately half of the time -- 13 years.
Dr. Mindy Brashears was nominated by President Donald Trump in the spring of 2018, but she cannot fill the seat and run the mission area until she is confirmed by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. There is still no date set for a hearing.
The average time from nomination to Senate confirmation for Trump nominees has been 84 days and we are well beyond that.
Could it be that there is some pushback from the Food Safety Alliance, a group of NGOs with food safety as one of their missions because of Brashears’ role in the BPI case against ABC in 2017?
I hope not, but it would not surprise me one bit.
That Alliance is composed of groups like the Consumer Federation of America, Center for Science in the Public’s Interest, Consumers Union, Food & Water Watch and STOP. They have a lot of serious clout in D.C.
Even if she had a Senate hearing in the next month, and got the vote of approval, that leaves her less than two years in office if Trump is asked by voters to pack his bags and leave. After the committee vote, there still must be a Senate as a whole vote. Politics can delay this final vote of approval for a very long time.
She probably is very familiar to many in the industry, but the Food Safety Alliance is not going to be very familiar with her and her politics and they warm up very slowly, especially to Republican appointees with business ties.
I was told there are about 700 positions that are presidential nominees requiring Senate confirmation; and that those who come from outside the Beltway have a 50% return to public life within the first year. That just illustrates what a terrific change in lifestyle, politics, friendships, etc., is involved.
Why would anyone want to do this if they had less than two years to try and understand the system, get the trust of the players and create meaningful change?
I would guess Brashears will be asked to answer that question, if and when, a Senate hearing gets scheduled.
In the meantime, career employees of FSIS are running the ship without the political clout to create big changes and stand up to the meat and poultry industries, the Food Safety Alliance and Congress when challenged.
Hopefully the national elections will play a major role in getting the Senate to wake up and do their job -- a vital portion of that job would be getting Dr. Brashears to Washington as soon as possible.