Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Next Food Safety Czar: A Modest Proposal

May 21, 2009

One of Tom Vilsack’s first acts after being confirmed as Secretary of Agriculture was to name Ronald F. Hicks as Acting Deputy Undersecretary for Food Safety. In his memo announcing the appointment, Secretary Vilsack said of Mr. Hicks that his “… extensive experience will bring great benefit to the Agency as this administration shapes its vision for a productive transition.”

And what, exactly, does Ron Hicks bring to the food safety table? An academic background in veterinary science? In microbiology? In anything biological? Or, maybe, expertise in developing and implementing food safety programs – anywhere?

Not a chance! Ronald Hicks is an attorney by training and an administrator by temperament.  His previous position was Chief Operating Officer of FSIS, with emphasis on the “…design, operations and improvement of FSIS management systems.”  In short, Ron Hicks is a desk jockey with a law degree.

Hicks’ immediate boss was Elizabeth Johnson, the Acting Undersecretary for the Office of Food Safety (She left in December 2008). Johnson worked as a research dietitian within USDA, a nutritionist within the food labeling division of FDA, and as a consultant to government and the private sector on nutrition, farm credit and livestock issues. Food safety was not in her resumé.

Reporting to Hicks is Alfred Almanza, the present FSIS Administrator. Almanza began his career as an inspector with USDA 30 years ago, and has risen through the ranks. He is the only member of the senior USDA team who has direct training and experience in food safety issues.

Secretary Vilsack badly needs a senior team member with the knowledge and experience to guide USDA’s efforts to revamp food safety policies and enforcement. We have found the perfect candidate.

Dr. David Theno has all the necessary qualifications for the position of Undersecretary for the Office of Food Safety. After earning his degrees in animal sciences, he worked for large food companies, such as Armour Foods and Foster Farms. He has led his own independent consulting firm. In 1993, following a disastrous outbreak of E. coli O157:H7, Jack-In-The-Box recruited Dr. Theno to reinvent that organization’s tattered food safety program.

The program developed and implemented by David Theno earned awards both for the company and for him. Last year, Dr. Theno retired from Foodmaker (the parent of Jack-In-The-Box), and is now an independent consultant once again. 

Dr. Theno knows the meat industry, knows food safety, and knows how to get things done. Tom Vilsack needs him at the pinnacle of the food safety pyramid.

David Theno has the right stuff!

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