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Biden taps longtime USDA scientist to oversee food safety

Jose Esteban, the chief scientist at USDA’s meat inspection agency, is President Biden’s choice to become agriculture undersecretary for food safety, announced the White House. If confirmed by the Senate, Esteban would be the USDA leader on issues ranging from prevention of food-borne illness to regulation of cell-cultured meat, now approaching commercialization.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Esteban, who has worked at the USDA since 2001, “has a proven, and extensive, track record” of pursuing food safety. He has been chief scientist of the Food Safety and Inspection Service since mid-2018 and is vice president of International Association for Food Protection, an organization of food-safety professionals in 70 countries.

As undersecretary, Esteban would oversee the FSIS, which has 7,500 meat inspectors and a budget of $1.4 billion annually to assure the safety of meat, poultry and egg products.

President Harrison signed the first meat inspection law in 1890, covering salt pork and bacon for export. The turning point for meat inspection was the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906, passed in reaction to Upton Sinclair’s exposé of filthy conditions in packing plants, which banned the sale of adulterated or misbranded meat and required sanitary conditions at slaughterhouses. The great majority of meat produced in the United States undergoes federal inspection.

Throughout his tenure, Esteban has worked in FSIS’s Office of Public Health Science. A native of Mexico, he has an MBA and a veterinary degree from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and a doctoral degree in epidemiology and a master’s degree in preventive veterinary medicine from UC-Davis. Before USDA, he worked at the CDC, eventually becoming assistant director of its food safety office.

The USDA announced “a stronger and more comprehensive effort” in mid-October to reduce the risk of disease-causing salmonella bacteria in raw poultry. Consumption of chicken and turkey was estimated to be the source of 23 percent of the more than 1 million cases of salmonella-caused illnesses among Americans annually.

Esteban is the third Biden nominee for undersecretary, a sub-cabinet post overseeing a branch of USDA activities, with a long record of work at the Agriculture Department. The others are Chavonda Jacobs-Young and Homer Wilkes. Jacobs-Young, administrator of the Agricultural Research Service, was nominated on July 28 to be undersecretary for research. Wilkes, whose four-decade career included a stint as state conservationist in Mississippi, was nominated to be undersecretary for natural resources on June 23.

The Senate was expected to vote this week on the nomination of Robert Bonnie, USDA’s climate adviser, to serve as undersecretary for farm production and conservation. There are eight undersecretary posts. The Senate has confirmed two and Wilkes is awaiting a confirmation vote. The Senate Agriculture Committee has scheduled a confirmation hearing on Jacobs-Young on Wednesday. The White House has yet to announce undersecretary nominees for public nutrition and for international trade.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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