Empty Agriculture offices, including food safety, raise concerns

Five key leadership positions remain vacant despite several outbreaks of food-borne illness in 2009.

Almost a full year after President Obama took office, the Agriculture Department still has vacancies in five key leadership positions, including the high-profile job of undersecretary for food safety.

Despite several outbreaks of food-borne illness in 2009 and the appointment of an interagency panel on food safety, Obama has not nominated anyone for the top food-safety position at USDA.

House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., has repeatedly called on the president to make an appointment. Late last month, after 21 people in 16 states had become infected with E. coli and National Steak and Poultry recalled 248,000 pounds of beef products, DeLauro said the problem was caused by practices that USDA could easily regulate if it had an appointee to make decisions.

"This position has been vacant for far too long and it is preventing the department from acting on critical food safety issues such as this one," DeLauro said.

Administration officials have acknowledged they have had trouble filling the slot because the White House does not want to nominate a candidate who has been a lobbyist for either food companies or consumer groups. When asked about the vacancy, Caleb Weaver, a USDA spokesman said in an e-mail, "Until there are zero illnesses and deaths due to food-borne illness, there is work to be done, which is why Secretary Tom Vilsack has made this a top priority."

Weaver went on to cite examples of USDA efforts, including a joint initiative with the FDA to improve product traceability throughout the food supply chain.

Obama has also failed to nominate a general counsel at USDA. Vilsack has said he wants to make civil rights and the settlement of discrimination cases a top priority, but there has been no resolution of any cases so far.

The position of chief financial officer is also vacant. The Senate confirmed businessman Evan Segal to the position in July, but he quit after Vilsack required the CFO to report to Assistant Secretary for Administration Pearlie Reed. According to a report in Government Executive, Segal objected to the change, citing a law requiring CFOs to report directly to agency secretaries.

The job of undersecretary for research, education and economics also has been vacant since Rajiv Shah became administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development last week. Molly Jahn, the deputy undersecretary who came on board Nov. 9, is running the agency, but Jahn agreed to take the deputy slot for only one year.

The position of administrator of the Foreign Agricultural Service has been vacant since December when Vilsack reassigned Michael Michener to the U.S. embassy to the United Nations food agencies in Rome. FAS Associate Administrator John Brewer is running FAS, and USDA sources say Brewer told FAS employees last week that he expects Vilsack to name a new administrator soon.

Vilsack has the authority to name a new FAS administrator, but President Obama must nominate the two undersecretaries and the general counsel and send them to the Senate for confirmation. "The president remains committed to filling these positions with the most qualified persons for those posts," a White House spokesman said in an e-mail on Monday.