Food safety chief to step down in December

The Obama administration’s highest-ranking food safety official announced Friday that she would resign the office next month, prompting immediate pressure on the president to move swiftly to name a successor.

Elisabeth Hagen, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) undersecretary for food safety, said she would leave the job for a position in the private sector in mid-December.

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As undersecretary, Hagen oversaw the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), leading major efforts to tamp down on E. coli and salmonella outbreaks. Under Hagen, the agency pursued strengthened regulations, including a rule proposing mandatory labeling of mechanically tenderized meat.

“USDA and FSIS have successfully made preventing foodborne illness a real priority,” she said in a statement issued by the agency. “The steps we have taken, from modernizing the agency, strengthening oversight of industry and increasing outreach to consumers has led to safer food and fewer foodborne illnesses."

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack praised Hagan’s tenure, which included spearheading the development of a new public health information system designed to inform the public about safety issues.

Hagen also won accolades from public interest groups, including the Consumer Federation of America. The organization issued a statement Friday crediting Hagen with bringing “a new level of respect to the position,” which was created two decades ago in response to a string of outbreaks linked to pathogens in food.

“The very presence of a person with her training in and commitment to public health helped USDA move ahead in dealing with foodborne illness associated with meat, poultry and egg products,” the group said. “We urge the President to act quickly to identify and appoint a successor who is equally well qualified by training and by commitment to the primary purposes of the meat and poultry inspection laws.”

Hagen’s departure comes as FSIS moves forward with contentious new regulations that food and worker safety groups warn could increase the threat of illness outbreaks and workplace injuries.