The Senate Agriculture Committee advanced the nominations of three positions at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in a vote Wednesday afternoon. The committee voted to favorably report the USDA nominations of Dr. Mindy Brashears to be undersecretary of agriculture for food safety, Naomi Earp to be assistant secretary of agriculture for civil rights and Scott Hutchins to be undersecretary of agriculture for research, education and economics (REE). The nominees may now be considered by the full U.S. Senate for confirmation.
Hutchins and Brashears were easily approved, although Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.) opposed Hutchins' nomination. Brashears, the White House's pick for undersecretary for food safety, advanced unanimously.
Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) has questions about Earp and was one of six members who voted against advancing Earp’s nomination in committee. In the confirmation hearing the prior week, Stabenow had an exchange with Earp questioning her statement on the difference in handling sexual assault "from the silliness that goes on as a part of harassment."
Brashears is a professor of food safety and public health and the director of the International Center for Food Industry Excellence at Texas Tech University. Brashears’ research program focuses on improving food safety standards to make an impact on public health. Her work evaluates interventions in pre- and post-harvest environments and on the emergence of antimicrobial drug resistance in animal feeding systems. These efforts have resulted in commercialization of a pre-harvest feed additive that can reduce Escherichia coli and salmonella in cattle.
Brashears, nominee to lead the Food Safety & Inspection Service, told the Senate Agriculture Committee that she would take the issue of cell-cultured protein oversight seriously if confirmed. Brashears also noted that many “scientific questions” need to be answered and that the food safety risks of large-scale "fake meat" production are largely unknown.
Brashears also said if confirmed, she looks forward to working with the trade and marketing group at USDA as the policy chair for CODEX. “We will use science and data to work in collaboration to develop international policies and ensure food is safe and it can be traded,” she said.
Brashears also has spent time in her career evaluating ways to reduce salmonella. In questioning, she stated, “Controlling salmonella, preventing outbreaks and looking at ways to reduce salmonella in our food supply is very important for me and will be a priority to me in my job.”
Another big topic within the confirmation hearing focused on the proposal to move the Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute of Food & Agriculture (NIFA) out of Washington, D.C. Hutchins, as undersecretary of REE, would oversee many of the 700 employees who would be moving if the proposal advances. He promised that he would continue to ensure collaboration among agencies as well as that the role of science remains strong.
Hutchins said for any transition that must take place, he would ensure that it does “not happen at loss or sacrifice of quality of science of independence of economic assessments ERS would perform.”
Hutchins, who has spent more than 30 years of his career working at Dow AgroSciences with a focus on pesticides, has received criticism for his role within agribusinesses. When asked specifically if he would look to the needs of farmers and not industry, Hutchins said his focus has always been on “innovation” and said it’s important for the public and private sectors to continue to be partners to develop progressive solutions.