Last week, after leaving the post vacant for a year, President Barack Obama nominated Dr. Elisabeth Hagen to be undersecretary for food safety at the Department of Agriculture. The appointment comes after years of food-borne illness outbreaks spread by everything from spinach to peanut butter, and after George W. Bush weakened biotechnology oversight as he was headed out the door. During the time the post was unoccupied, The New York Times revealed that much of the ground beef we consume contains ammonia -- an additive meant to kill E. coli and salmonella, of course. That kind of lax regulation of the industrial food chain is exactly the kind of thing food-safety advocates hoped Obama would change.
Those same advocates are a bit unsure about what to think about Hagen, a physician who's served as the Department of Agriculture's chief medical officer, since she's been a behind-the-scenes player in the department who also worked at its Food Safety and Inspection Service. Tom Laskawy at Grist calls her an under-the-radar choice and notes that because she joined the agency in the Bush administration it's not as though she is "untainted by the food safety failings of the last few years." Carol Tucker-Foreman, a Food Policy Institute fellow, told Food Safety News that consumer advocates haven't had much direct contact with Hagen but "have been told, however, that she has been a strong advocate for improved food safety policies and has urged the agency to be more aggressive in asking companies to initiate recalls." Another advocate and lawyer, William Marler, told Food Safety News that it was important to have a medical doctor in the role.
The last person in that post under Bush was also a doctor and public-health expert, though. Dr. Richard Raymond defended his legacy when Obama criticized the food-safety system shortly after taking office, and criticized the president for leaving the post vacant since his exit. But Raymond supports irradiating beef to get rid of the pathogens, not eliminating the hurried methods for raising and butchering cattle that put those pathogens in beef in the first place. While it's not clear yet whether Hagen would consider irradiation over preventative measures, Tucker-Foreman told USA Today that Hagen has urged the USDA to consider steaks and chops with detectable surface levels of E. coli contaminated, in addition to monitoring ground beef (of course, even monitoring ground beef hasn't always been successful).
As anyone who's paid attention to food politics over the past decade knows, the way we produce meat is the source of the problem. Reshaping the way we think about industrial agriculture is a big undertaking, but, if Hagen wanted to take it on, advocates have long argued that it would be more effective than finding new ways to combat the problems industrial agriculture causes. Runoff from confined animal feeding areas, where cramped livestock leave cesspools of their manure in tanks that can leak into the water supply, is probably the source for the E. coli and salmonella we find on vegetables and nuts. Those facilities also leave pathogen-soaked waste on the animals themselves, and butchering facilities more interested in productivity than safety introduce them into the meat we buy in grocery stores. More than that, our process of raising animals -- feeding them grain, keeping them in tight spaces and giving them tons of antibiotics -- probably alters the balance of fats in food so much that it's contributing to the rise of health problems like heart disease. And all of the ways producers try to mitigate those harms after butchering -- like irradiation, ammonia, chlorination, tenderization, and blasting meat with carbon monoxide -- might be making meat even more dangerous.
Addressing the oversight problems, Democrats Rep. Rosa DeLauro, Rep. John Dingell, and Sen. Dick Durbin sponsored legislation last year that would increase the FDA's oversight powers and compliance requirements for companies. The bill, passed in the House and approved by committee in the Senate, would enable the FDA to order recalls of tainted food but not oversee the meat that's the source of illness. Supervision of the food production process is still under the USDA's jurisdiction.
While Congress is considering legislation to institute recalls of contaminated products more quickly and to increase food-safety inspections, the root problem is still the way meat is produced. After-the-fact inspection and treatment of already-tainted meat may not ever be perfect, and the best solution might be to scale down those operations. Meanwhile, smaller farms might be disproportionally hit by new requirements that would increase the Food and Drug Administration's oversight powers and compliance requirements for companies. These and other measures lawmakers take tend to mitigate damage after meat is already on grocery store shelves. Since the FDA is in charge of food and Hagen will be responsible for the safety of meat, bridging efforts to deal with the source and the outcome of food-borne illnesses might not be as easy as food-safety advocates would like. Expectations that anyone in Hagen's position can completely change the way meat is produced might be too high.
Some hope Hagen's background as an infectious-disease specialist who may have treated drug-resistant food-borne illnesses means she will be more sensitive to the needs of the patients affected by food-safety problems. Because of the widespread use of antibiotics, many food-borne diseases are nearly impossible to treat, says Dr. Margaret Mellon, a molecular biologist and an attorney who heads the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. The biggest hope Mellon has for Hagen is that the USDA starts to see everyone, from the patient in the hospital room with salmonella to the shrimp fisherman in the Gulf of Mexico affected by the dead zone from agricultural runoff, as a client. But everyone is still reading tea leaves on Hagen, who doesn't have much of a public record, Mellon says.
"I think the important thing is understanding agriculture writ large, not as a parochial activity dominated by the needs of the producing community," Mellon says. "I think the agency's moving in that direction, but it's got a long way to go."