Elisabeth A. Hagen, Under Secretary for Food Safety in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, views her job through a mix of lenses – the lens of the scientist, the bureaucrat, and the mom. Her professional degree is an MD from Harvard; at USDA she oversees rules and regulations relating to meat, poultry and processed eggs, and she is the proud and caring mother of two young children.
In her professional role at USDA Hagen is responsible for oversight of 20 percent of the food supply. The agency employs 7,300 inspectors who perform daily and continuous checks inside 6,200 food processing facilities. Recent concerns about food safety, including those with Twin Cities connections, have catapulted the agency Hagen directs into the national spotlight.
Dr. Hagen has been in town this week meeting with producers, distributors, bureaucrats and others who play a role in assuring food safety. Her visit was sponsored by the White House Office of Public Engagement and the Council on Women and Girls. On Thursday morning, September 15, she took time to sit down with a group of women gathered at the Eastside Food Cooperative in Northeast Minneapolis where she shared her views from each of these lenses.
Participating in the lively exchange were representatives of area coops, food shelves, city inspectors and others concerned about issues relating to food safety. Though Dr. Hagen’s position in the federal bureaucracy focuses on the “big picture”, emphasis at this gathering was on the “last mile” of food access and safety.
Hagen presented astounding statistics about food borne disease, with particular emphasis on e-coli and salmonella for which there are one million reported cases a year. She also described the complexities of the federal oversight process – the role of the Food and Drug Administration and that of the U.S. Department of Agriculture – with handoff to the Interstate Commerce Commission. The immense challenge to provide safe food to three hundred million Americans was the prevailing theme of her talk. She noted several examples of recent changes e.g. labeling changes, that the federal government has done to accomplish the goal
Discussion turned to the need to alter long-engrained habits at the consumer end of the food chain. As one office in a complex federal bureaucracy Hagen is quick to note that divergent priorities and institutional modes of operation are a challenge. The ultimate challenge is to the consumer who makes purchasing and preparation decisions about what people eat.
Participants in the discussion lamented the lack of education opportunities for young people, particularly teens, to learn about food safety. Though younger children may be protected, teens are on their own and are the parents of the next generation.
Another topic of concern to participants was the issue of local entrepreneurship and the ways in which the federal system does or does not support local farmers and producers.
Hagen listened and offered a number of references to resources that her office and the federal government offer to anyone concerned about food safety. One tangible offering was free food thermometers available from her office. Digital resources Hagen suggested include these:
Ask Karen, sponsored by the Food Safety and Inspection Service at USDA
Food Safety.gov, managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Or follow the efforts of Dr. Hagen on her agency blog.
Though she clearly had much more information to share, Dr. Hagen took time to listen with care – while her assistant took copious notes. The women present, representing as we did a wide range of food safety-related issues, overflowed with queries and suggestions, each of which received a thoughtful response and assurance of follow-up.
Last seen this incredibly busy woman was answering questions, grasping ideas and scrambling to maneuver rush hour traffic to catch a 5:20 flight back to a mighty professional challenge – and to those two little ones – in Washington, DC.