USDA nominees discuss food illness, civil rights, climate science

Three nominees for under cabinet positions with the U.S. Department of Agriculture testified before the Senate Agriculture Committee Nov. 28.

The three were Mindy Brashears, Ph.D., nominee for under secretary of agriculture for food safety; Scott Hutchins, Ph.D., nominee to be under secretary of agriculture for research, education, and economics; and Naomi Earp, nominee to be assistant secretary of agriculture for civil rights.

Brashears, director of the International Center for Food Industry Excellence at Texas Tech University, was the nominee of regional interest. She told the panel that as under secretary, she planned to take her scientific expertise and problem-solving experience to make sound decisions while working with the Food Safety and Inspection Service’s current leadership team to protect public health.

“I would focus on modernizing our systems with an emphasis on issues which pose significant public health threats such as the emergence of antibiotic resistance and evaluation of new and emerging products and technologies,” Brashears told the committee. “I would work diligently to retain, recruit and educate our inspectors to implement regulations to ensure food safety and public health.

“In the past few weeks there have been multiple outbreaks associated with meat and poultry products. There will always be improvements that need to be made in our system to protect the consumer. We are all consumers as are our children, our parents and our friends and I can use my scientific skills to inform regulatory decisions to prevent future outbreaks.”

Brashears told the committee reducing salmonella levels in poultry would be a major focus for her.

“We’ve got to take action to get these numbers down,” Brashears said.

Under questioning by Sen. John Hoeven, R-ND, Brashears lauded the plan by USDA and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to jointly regulate cell-culture meat and agreed with Hoeven that the process used to produce cell-derived meat needed to be labeled.

“The consumer has to know if the product comes from livestock or it’s cell based,” Brashears said. “That will be an important message on our labels. We have to have transparency with our consumers.”

The other two nominees received far tougher questioning from committee Democrats.

Hutchins, an entomologist who recently retired as global leader of integrated field sciences for Corteva Agriscience, told the committee he would protect the quality of work at the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture as Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue continues his plan to relocate the agencies outside of the nation’s capital.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, tried to get Hutchins to separate himself from positions that the president has taken on scientific issues.

“Who does the chief scientist represent, the president, secretary, the farmers, the industry or the public?” Gillibrand asked the nominee.

“My answer would be all of those as well as the scientific community,” Hutchins responded.

Under questioning by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-OH, Hutchins said he accepted a “large body of work” showing human activity was accelerating climate change. But he said that agriculture could be a “net partial solution” through cover crops and other practices that sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gases.

Larry Dreiling can be reached at 785-628-1117 or [email protected].