Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Why is Tom Vilsack Considering a Lobbyist to Head The Food Safety and Inspection Service?

Yesterday, Ed O'Keefe of Washington Post came out with a short list of candidates to head the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the arm of the agency that oversees national standards and inspections for meat poultry, and egg products. O'Keefe names attorney Barbara J. Masters as one of the top two picks for the FSIS job, and this is a little odd, given that Ms. Masters is a senior policy advisor for Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Bode Matz PC, the largest Big Ag lobbying firm in Washington. Now, are we misunderstanding Barack's Executive Order banning lobbyists from working in his administration...or should Ms. Masters be kicked off the candidate list? (Ms. Masters, in her official portrait)

A little background: The much-criticized FSIS has been a trainwreck for years. There are weekly recalls of contaminated products, including a couple of record breakers for ground beef in 2008. And the undersecretary FSIS position has been repeatedly filled by "interim" wonks who usually last for about eighteen months before fleeing to work in the private sector, with corporations they were previously chasing down for safety violations. The most recent FSIS head, Elizabeth Johnson, left the agency on December 11, 2008, to go work for the National Restaurant Association. The position was vacant until last week, when Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack appointed number-cruncher Ron Hicks as the interim warm body.

Let's take a look at exactly what Olsson Frank Weeda does...from their website:

Olsson Frank Weeda is the nation’s premier FDA, USDA, and health care law firm, serving clients before federal agencies, courts, and Congress...we have daily contact with agencies throughout the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Our attorneys and Senior Policy Advisors have worked with officials in, and have themselves served at, the highest levels of the Department...

Unless Ms. Masters has spent her time sharpening pencils and attending a tanning salon while employed by Olsson Frank Weeda, she should not be under consideration for the FSIS job, particularly because she was previously employed at FSIS before joining the firm. Originally a veterinarian, Ms. Masters started at USDA in 1989, and held a variety of posts throughout the agency, before ascending to Administrator of FSIS. Ms. Masters is a senior policy advisor for three different parts of Olsson Frank Weeda's practice, including the Agriculture division, and this is their claim to fame:

...we have provided regulatory counsel to a multitude of businesses, from small processors to multi-facility multi-national corporations. We understand the costs associated with regulatory actions, such as plant closures, and provide the legal expertise to limit these costs and get plants back up and running as soon as possible.

Here's a handy dandy crack-the-code interpretation of what Olsson Frank Weeda considers success stories from their Agriculture division work (the decoded bureaucrat foodsafety speak is in red):

*Helped firms manage recalls of allegedly adulterated or misbranded foods (Sure, the meat was contaminated with E. coli, but under current USDA standards this is legal, so why should our client be penalized? And USDA doesn't require testing for Mad Cow disease, so please stop bringing this up!)

*Counseled firms on design and implementation of their hazard analysis critical control point (HACCP) plans and sanitation standard operating procedure (These standards are ridiculously open to interpretation under current FSIS rules, and testing is often inconclusive, and USDA inspectors don't know how to test properly, so why should our client be penalized?)

*Successfully lobbied for major amendments to the Federal Meat Inspection Act (Any kind of standards for meat processing that require skilled workers and clean facilities cuts in to the profit margin, so why should our clients be penalized?)

*Obtained reopening of FSIS-regulated plants after suspension or withdrawal of inspection (Our clients were butchering cattle in filthy conditions, but everyone does this, so why should our clients be penalized? Or: Whaddya mean we can't sell downer cows as food?!)

*Assisted plants in avoiding plant closures (Look, our client has had repeated health and safety violations, but everyone else does too, so why can't we just carry on with business as usual?)

*Successfully challenged USDA’s procedure for adopting safe handling and labeling regulations for meat and poultry products (Really? Consumers should know where their food comes from, what kind of biohormones and antibiotics it was injected with, and whether it was genetically engineered? Why should our clients be penalized in the interest of transparency and safety?)

*Achieved policy changes to permit importation of innovative products (Look, so what if steam-wanding a beef carcass doesn't kill all pathogens. So what if irradiating meat is questionable from a food safety standpoint and might harm the consumer? Why should our clients be penalized?)

*Represented research facilities in investigations and enforcement actions related to the Animal Welfare Act (Electrocuting monkeys? Injecting pigs with carcinogenic materials? Attaching engines to open wounds on dogs? This is standard research. Why should our clients be penalized?)

*Managed bid protests in USDA procurement programs (Why should our clients not get money they don't deserve?)

*Assisted businesses in obtaining USDA rural development financing (Got a huge plot of land you don't want to farm? We'll help you get subsidy money anyway! You deserve it!)

Ms. Masters is also a senior policy advisor for Olsson Frank Weeda's Public Policy division, and the Food, Dietary Supplements and Cosmetics division. Both of these divisions have gotten into crucial policy wrangling on all kinds of issues related to food. Barack has given former Raytheon lobbyist William Lynn a "waiver" to be Deputy Secretary of Defense, despite his long history of harassing the government on behalf of his employers. The Administration is claiming that the waiver is justified, because Lynn is ‘uniquely qualified’ for the job, since he already has top secret security clearance and deep insight into weaponry and strategic use of technology. The same cannot be said of Ms. Masters; there are plenty of other people who are qualified to lead the FSIS. And we'd have to argue that as someone who's already worked for FSIS, perhaps Ms. Masters is one of the individuals responsible for the current mess.

It's appalling, and reprehensible, that a lobbyist is being considered for a top position in an agency that's already fraught with accusations of being "in the pocket" of Big Ag.