USDA remains without an Under Secretary for Food Safety
Food safety, like many other food initiatives, has received much attention during the Obama presidency, and has emerged in the larger culture as a hot topic. Today, investigative journalist Michael Moss and the New York Times were awarded the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting, for a long, detailed account of unsafe practices--and regulatory loopholes--in the meat industry. Moss' The Burger That Shattered Her Life, published in the New York Times on October 3, 2009, caused a world of trouble for Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and led USDA to do an internal review of meat safety policies.
Moss's prize-winning story focused on Stephanie Smith, a 22-year-old dancer who is permanently paralyzed and brain damaged after eating a hamburger contaminated with E. coli O:157:H7, a deadly foodborne pathogen that can permanently maim when it does not kill. The day after the story ran, Sec. Vilsack issued a statement that said, in part, "the story we learned about over the weekend is unacceptable and tragic," and it was then that he launched a review of all Department meat safety procedures. USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service monitors meat, poultry and eggs, and has been without leadership since December of 2008. Kudos to Moss for his excellent exposition and his prize, and to the Times for originally placing the story on the front page of the newspaper, above the fold. (Above: The photo of Smith in the Times, and the front page)
Smith is represented by preeminent food poisoning attorney Bill Marler, of Seattle's Marler Clark law firm, and he is currently suing Cargill, the producers of the hamburger that made Smith ill; the company declined to cover Smith's medical bills. This week, Marler wins his own big prize: He'll be awarded the NSF 2010 Food Safety Leadership Award, for his long work in the field. It's another laurel added to his many awards, for a career that has profoundly changed American food safety practices.
Following Moss's story, President Obama nominated Dr. Elizabeth Hagen to lead USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. Marler had been vetted for the position, but Hagen, an infectious disease specialist, got the nod. Hagen's nomination is currently languishing in the Senate, along with many other Obama nominations. President Obama recently made 19 recess appointments while Congress was enjoying its Spring Break, but Hagen was not among these. Perhaps the Pulitzer Prize will tip the balance of action in the Senate? And perhaps it will spur the passage of S 510, the food safety bill that has also been languishing in the Senate...
Meantime, Marler continues to trump USDA, FDA and CDC in timely reporting on food poisoning outbreaks, on his Marlerblog, a must read. He also publishes Food Safety News, and in his "spare" time, blogs here at Obama Foodorama.