The Center for Food Safety sent a letter to President-elect Barack Obama this week outlining what the organization considers to be the best candidates for Secretary and Undersecretaries of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. CFS contends that substantial changes are needed in USDA leadership for the agency to live up to its job of managing and protecting the American food supply in the interest of the public.
"We need leadership at the USDA that is free from big agriculture and corporate influence," said Rebecca Spector, West Coast director at CFS, "so they can insure food safety, protect family farms and make decisions that will protect the environment. We are pushing candidates who have strong commitments to transparency, protecting human health, the environment and family farms."
Spector said that under the Bush administration, and more recently under the leadership of current Secretary of Agriculture Ed Shafer, polices have been pushed through or proposed that have been in favor of Big Ag, biotech companies, genetically engineered foods and foods from cloned animals without due concern for the consumer's right to transparent labeling.
"Under Secretary Schafer's leadership, decisions that open the door to allowing cloned animals and genetically engineered animals into the food supply without adequate safety testing and labeling are particularly egregious," Spector said. "Studies show that the majority of consumers want those foods to be labeled but this past leadership has largely rejected labeling foods using new technologies."
The candidates recommended by CFS are the following:
- Tom Buis, president of the National Farmers Union, the nation's second-largest farm organization. The NFU has a history of putting the needs of small and mid-sized farmers first, and opposing the concentration of agriculture operations.
- John Boyd, founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association; a fourth-generation farmer and a civil-rights leader.
- Kathleen Merrigan, Ph.D., director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment Program at the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, and a former representative on the National Organic Standards Board. Merrigan also served as senior science and technology adviser to the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee and helped usher in the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990.
- Mark Ritchie, Minnesota Secretary of State and former president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.
- Tim LaSalle, CEO of Rodale Institute and former professor at Cal Poly where he taught dairy science and served as the president and CEO of California's Agriculture Education Foundation.
- Jim Riddle, coordinator for organic outreach at the University of Minnesota Southwest Research and Outreach Center and founding chair of the Independent Organic Inspectors Association.
CFS also opposes several reported candidates for USDA leadership, including:
- Charles Stenholm, former Texas congressman and agriculture lobbyist.
- Dennis Wolff, Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary, who purportedly supports a ban on clear labeling of dairy products produced without the use rbGH in his state.
- Rep. Collin Peterson, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee who, according to CFS, because of his failure to lead meaningful change in farm subsidies and other important provisions in the recent Farm Bill does not have the ability to make the tough decisions needed to reinvigorate the USDA.
"Because we have consistently seen regulations coming out that do not promote food safety or have public health as their first priority, we would like a clean sweep of the leadership at the USDA," Spector said.