Obama’s pick for food safety chief surprises consumer advocates

Soon after taking office, President Obama highlighted food safety as a
domestic priority. A string of national outbreaks of food illnesses were
a “troubling trend,” the president said. He called the problems
“critical” and said they presented a “risk to public health.”

But the Obama administration has had a difficult time filling the post
of chief food safety official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and
it wasn’t until this week — one year into his term — that the
president nominated someone to assume that role. The choice of Elisabeth
Hagen, 40, a physician with four years’ experience in food safety,
surprised food safety advocates, who said they knew little about her.

“Consumer advocates who work closely with [the Department of
Agriculture] on policy issues have had limited direct experience with
Dr. Hagen,” said the Consumer Federation of America, which is part of a
group known as the Safe Food Coalition.

A spokesman at the USDA said Hagen is declining interview requests as
she awaits confirmation by the Senate. Her nomination does not appear to
face strong opposition.

The meat industry applauded the selection. “Hagen brings the background,
skills and vision to lead USDA’s efforts to make sure that Americans
have access to a safe and healthy food supply,” said Patrick J. Boyle,
president of the American Meat Institute.

It is difficult to assess Hagen’s positions on policy or the politics of
food safety; she hasn’t published any papers, articles or books on the
topic. Most of her career has been spent teaching and practicing
medicine as an infectious disease specialist. She left medicine in 2006
and went to the USDA, where she was quickly promoted through the ranks
of the department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service to become the
chief medical officer last year.

If confirmed as undersecretary of agriculture for food safety, Hagen
will face complex challenges. She would oversee the USDA’s Food Safety
Inspection Service, which is responsible for safe meat, poultry and
eggs, which make up 20 percent of the food supply. It employs 7,300
inspectors who perform daily and continuous checks inside 6,200 food
processing facilities.

The number of recalls, illnesses and deaths associated with contaminated
meats and poultry has remained steady since 2004, despite government
and industry pledges to make food safer. This month, Russia banned U.S.
imports of chicken out of concern about a chlorine wash American
producers are using to disinfect poultry.

Hagen was not the first choice for the job at the USDA.

Last February, the administration approached Mike Doyle, a nationally
known microbiologist who directs the Center for Food Safety at the
University of Georgia. Doyle said he was offered the job and was vetted,
but the day before the announcement was to be made in May, his
nomination collapsed. The White House wanted Doyle to divest his
financial interest in a patented microbial wash for meat that he had
developed. Doyle offered to defer his interests until his government
service was completed but the administration refused, he said. “It’s
just an awful lot to ask for,” Doyle said. “I would have taken a more
than 50 percent pay cut to go to Washington, and this would have been a
very big financial hit.”

The administration also sought out Caroline Smith Dewaal, the director
of food safety at Center for Science in the Public Interest, a lawyer
and nationally known food safety expert who has spent 20 years working
on policy and trade issues. But Dewaal’s nomination came to a halt in
August because she was a registered lobbyist, which violated the
administration’s policy against hiring lobbyists.

Meanwhile, problems with foods regulated by the USDA continued unabated.
In 2009, there were 13 recalls of beef products contaminated with E.
coli O157:H7 that were linked with three deaths and dozens of illnesses.
In the first three weeks of 2010, there have been six recalls of
tainted meats. The most recent recall, which is ongoing, involves salami
contaminated with Salmonella that has sickened 189 people in 40 states.

“I don’t know of her personally,” Doyle said of Hagen. “She’s got a
steep learning curve.”