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Election brings change of some food safety officials from across government

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If the United States had a single independent food safety authority like most counties, a change of administrators would not be a significant event.  But with food safety spread across as many as 20 departments and agencies, elections bring topsy-turvy change.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)  in Atlanta is getting a new boss. Dr. Rochelle Walensky, a Harvard University professor and head of infectious disease at Massachusetts General Hospital, will take over from Dr. Robert Redfield.

The CDC, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) are the federal government’s top food safety agencies. Others, running from EPA to Fish and Wildlife, have various niche but important roles.

CDC’s job of running lab work has not all gone smoothly of late. The early COVID-19 test did not work correctly. And before that, the decontamination chambers in its bio lab failed– not suitable performance when dealing with Ebola and smallpox viruses.

Walensky’s appointment does not require Senate confirmation. The CDC and FDA are both agencies in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

The president-elect has names an HHS Secretary to replace Alex Azar but not yet an FDA Commissioner to follow Dr. Stephen Hahn. Azar and Hahn have led the logistics and safety checks for the largest role out of a new vaccine in U.S. history, offering the first hope of ending the coronavirus pandemic.

Hahn became FDA’s 24th Commissioner only one year ago, just before the deadly virus arrived from China. Many are said to want the job, including Dr. David Kessler. He is one of three co-chairs of the new administration’s COVID_19 advisory board.

The new administration has named its department heads for both HHS and USDA.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, 62, will be nominated as the next Secretary of HHS. Previously, he represented Los Angles in Congress.

And former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, 69, was named once against to run USDA.

Among a dozen political appointments at USDA is the Under Secretary for Food Safety. The Senate confirmed Mindy M. Brashears as Under Secretary for Food Safety less than one year ago, on March 23, 2020.

She is the fifth person to hold the highest-ranking food safety official in the United States. Prior to that, the top food safety job was vacant for six years, three months, and 11 days.

Fact is that in the 25 years since the Under Secretary for Food Safety was mandated by law, the position has gone vacant for more time than it’s been filled.   The incoming administration could ask Dr. Brashears to remain until the new President’s choice is named and confirmed by the Senate, but that would be a rare acknowledgment that food safety is important.   That means Brashears, a former professor of food safety from Texas Tech University, likely won’t be in the job after the new President is sworn in.

That stands in contrast with FDA,  where Frank Yiannas, the Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response, is often paired with Brashears but likely is not going anywhere soon because he is not a political appointee.

Yiannas is the principal advisor to FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn in the development and execution of policies related to food safety, including the implementation of the landmark FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). It’s likely he’ll continue that role for the next FDA Commissioner.

Yiannas came to FDA in December 2018 from food safety leadership at both Walmart and the Walt Disney Company.

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