Food safety undersecretary sets priorities

Elisabeth Hagen showed little interest in the creation of a single food safety agency during hearing.

In her first public speech since she was confirmed by the Senate on Sept. 16, Agriculture Undersecretary for Food Safety Elisabeth Hagen emphasized Thursday that the most important purpose of the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service was "to protect the public health." The FSIS has responsibility for inspection of meat, poultry and processed egg products, but food safety activists have often accused the agency of protecting industry at the expense of public health.

Hagen told a Consumer Federation of America conference that food safety regulations and inspection helped farmers and ranchers, and gave confidence to trading partners, but that none of those benefits was as important as making food safe for consumers.

She was USDA's chief medical officer and a practicing physician before assuming her current post, and she said that she was motivated by her experience in treating an elderly man who had a food-borne illness. Speaking with some difficulty, Hagen said she had "never felt more helpless" than when she had to explain to the patient's wife that even though he had survived D-Day and built two businesses, he might die from eating contaminated food. "But I don't feel helpless when I go to work" at USDA, she added. "We are one team with a purpose and that is to protect public health."

Hagen also maintained that the Obama administration "has a commitment to food safety that hasn't been seen in over a decade." She said that for years FSIS "relied too heavily on reaction" but has "moved toward prevention" on the issue. When the U.S. government began inspecting food 100 years ago, the agency did not try to address pathogens that are known Thursday or put an emphasis on keeping children or chronically ill people from getting sick. Hagen said she wanted to improve the agency's ability to trace food-borne illness outbreaks to the source and its mandate to regulate production plants to make sure animals are treated humanely.

Asked about two changes to her agency that Congress included in the 2008 farm bill, Hagen said a rule to allow the interstate transport of meat inspected by state agencies was "in the final drafting stage" and that a rule to move inspection of catfish from FDA to USDA was at OMB. "I don't know when it is coming out," she said, but added that she realized Congress expected it to have been done by December 2009 and promised to push it forward.

The catfish rule is highly controversial. Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Blanche Lincoln, who is from Arkansas and is one of the Southern senators who pushed Congress to move the inspection responsibility, asked Hagen about it at her confirmation hearing. The government of Vietnam is concerned that the rule could lead to unfair treatment of fish coming from that country.

Although the recent case of food-borne illness from eggs in Iowa has led activists to charge that the division of food inspection between FDA and USDA has led to poor performance, Hagen showed little interest in the creation of a single food safety agency. Hagen said that the Iowa situation "is all our faults" and that she wanted to improve information-sharing among the food inspection agencies. But she also said that she was not trying to expand FSIS jurisdiction and that consumers would be less concerned about how many agencies were inspecting food "if they thought we were doing the job."