Vacancies slow to be filled

WASHINGTON -- Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack named Karen Ross, a Californian of Nebraska origins, as his chief of staff Jan. 11, but almost a year after President Obama took office, five key positions at USDA are vacant.

WASHINGTON -- Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack named Karen Ross, a Californian of Nebraska origins, as his chief of staff Jan. 11, but almost a year after President Obama took office, five key positions at USDA are vacant.

Ross succeeds Iowan John Norris, who has been confirmed as a commissioner on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Ross has been president of the California Association of Winegraper Growers since 1996. California members of Congress and California agriculture leaders, who were disappointed that the Obama administration did not follow tradition and appoint a Californian as deputy secretary or as an undersecretary, have been pushing for her appointment to a high-level USDA position since just after Obama was elected. Although Ross has worked in California for many years, she has deep Nebraska roots. She was born in Nebraska, graduated from the University of Nebraska, owns a farm in Nebraska operated by her younger brother and worked for former Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb.

Of the vacant positions, the most prominent is the undersecretary for food safety. Despite several food outbreaks of foodborne illness in 2009 and the appointment of a high-level interagency panel to try to coordinate those issues, Obama never has nominated anyone for undersecretary for food safety. The position involves supervising meat, poultry and egg product inspection and dealing with Congress, other domestic agencies and international agencies and foreign countries on food safety policy.

Pressure to appoint

House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., one of the strongest food safety advocates in Congress, repeatedly has called on the president to make a nomination. Most recently, on Dec. 28, 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 in a news release said the problem was caused by practices that USDA easily could regulate if it had an appointee in place to make decisions.


"This outbreak also highlights the need for the Obama Administration to appoint immediately a strong and effective leader to be Undersecretary for Food Safety at USDA," DeLauro said. "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."

Other lawmakers and consumer advocates also have called for a food safety nomination, but administration officials have acknowledged that 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 foodborne illness, there is work to be done, which is why the Secretary Vilsack has made this a top priority. During Secretary Vilsack's first year in office, as we move aggressively to fill the undersecretary position, Acting Undersecretary Jerold Mande and the more than 9,000 employees of USDA's Food Safety and Inspection service have made major headway in improving safety during the last year."

Weaver continued, "In 2009, the Department instituted a sampling program for E. coli O157:H7 that can improve the safety of beef products made in part from bench trim, named a chief medical officer to improve coordination across food safety stakeholders, announced a final rule to make sure non-ambulatory cattle are not allowed to enter the human food supply and launched a major initiative with the FDA to improve product traceability throughout the food supply chain. In 2010, we will continue to improve our food safety system by increasing coordination with state and local partners and devising and implementing innovative policies that will result in new performance standards for the nation's poultry plants in order to reduce the prevalence of foodborne pathogens like salmonella and campylobacter."

Stalling progress

Obama also has failed to nominate a general counsel at USDA. Vilsack has said that he wants to make civil rights and the settlement of discrimination cases a top priority, but there has not been resolution of any of those cases so far, and lawyers involved in the cases say the lack of a general counsel to make decisions has been a factor.

"The acting general counsel and his staff are fulfilling the duties of the office and providing the secretary with excellent legal advice as we work to fill the general counsel position as quickly as possible," Weaver said.

The position of chief financial officer also is vacant. Congress confirmed Evan Segal, a businessman, to that position and he assumed it in July. When Segal took the job, the CFO reported directly to the secretary, but Vilsack later approved a reorganization that required the CFO to report to Assistant Secretary for Administration Pearlie Reed. According to a report in Government Executive magazine, Segal objected to the change, citing the 1990 Chief Financial Officers Act, which requires CFOs to report directly to agency secretaries. Vilsack told Segal he would report to the secretary for core concerns, agency sources said, but Segal quit.


The undersecretary for research, education and economics job also has been vacant since Rajiv Shah, who held the post, recently was sworn in as administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Molly Jahn, the deputy undersecretary who came on board Nov. 9, is running the agency, but Jahn agreed to take the deputy slot for one year. Jahn most recently served as dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and director of the Wisconsin Agricultural Experiment Station. Land grant college officials are concerned about long-term leadership in the research, education and economics division of USDA.

The position of administrator of the Foreign Agricultural Service also has been vacant since late December when Vilsack reassigned FAS Administrator Michael Michener as his special representative at 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 recently told FAS employees that he expects Vilsack to name a new administrator soon and that the new administrator will have the trade experience that Michener, a former USAID and State Department employee, lacked.

Vilsack has the authority to name a new FAS administrator, but Obama must nominate the two undersecretaries and the general counsel and send them to the Senate for confirmation, a process that usually takes months.

"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.

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