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USDA Nears Decision on Food Safety Chief

By Ed O'Keefe

The search for a head of the Department of Agriculture's Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) appears to have come down on two veterans of the food safety community: Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest and former FSIS administrator Barbara J. Masters, who is currently senior policy adviser at Washington law firm Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Bode Matz PC.

Food safety has been on the minds of many this month as a nationwide salmonella outbreak tied to peanut butter and peanut paste has caused serious illness and may have contributed to seven deaths. FSIS is only responsible however for the safety of the nation's commercial meat, poultry and eggs, while the Food and Drug Administration accounts for the safety of all other foods.

The undersecretary for food safety is responsible for crafting the government's policy and education programs on the issue; it is a political appointment that requires Senate confirmation.

Neither Masters nor Smith DeWaal would comment on their conversations with the Obama administration. Their names emerged as leading candidates following conversations with food industry representatives, food safety veterans and union officials.

Masters said she was "not in a position to say” whether she’s been contacted by administration officials about the job, but said she remains supportive of the Obama administration "no matter what they do on the issue."

Smith DeWaal said “I’m really not making any comment" and refused to say whether she has talked to the administration. In addition to working at the Center for Science in the Public interest, she also serves on the FDA's Center for Safety and Applied Nutrition Food Advisory Committee.

Other names mentioned for the position include Dr. Mike Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia; Mike Taylor, a Food and Drug Administration veteran and currently a research professor at George Washington University; and Bill Marler, a Seattle-based attorney and world-renowned expert on food safety issues.

Other Movement at Agriculture

Even as the FSIS search winds down, there's no word yet on when the administration will start filling other political appointments at USDA.

"We’re working very hard to identify competent, passionate and enthusiastic individuals who will lead the sub-cabinet agencies," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Monday during a conference call with reporters. "Certainly food safety is at the top of the list of positions we want to fill. We are aggressively working on that this week."

As for other jobs at USDA, Vilsack has named Iowa Utilities Board chairman and Kerry-Edwards campaign veteran John Norris as his chief of staff and Carole Jett as his deputy chief of staff.

In a rather candid admission of the size of his new department, Vilsack told reporters yesterday that "I was told that no one knows for sure how many people work at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They could tell me how many checks were issued but not how many people actually work here."

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By Ed O'Keefe  | January 27, 2009; 7:35 AM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments, Revolving Door  
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