The Senate Agriculture Committee on Thursday held a hearing on the nominations of Dr. Jose Emilio Esteban to be USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety and Alexis Taylor to be Under Secretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs.

The committee did not hold a vote to advance the nominations, but held the hearing to provide members of the committee an opportunity to ask questions of the nominees. A business meeting of the committee to hold a vote on the nominations has not yet been scheduled. The nominations need to pass the committee as well as a confirmation vote on the Senate floor.

Dr. Esteban is currently serving as the Chief Scientist of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS, the Agency) since August 2018. In this capacity, Dr. Esteban serves as the primary scientific advisor on matters of public health and food safety that affect the mission of the Agency, with primary responsibility for scientific initiatives within the Office of Public Health Science (OPHS).

In 2002, Dr. Esteban joined OPHS as the Director of the Western Laboratory. In this role, he directed the implementation of the sampling program and was responsible for the physical plant, equipment, and personnel infrastructure. In 2008, he was appointed as the FSIS Science Advisor for Laboratory Services. Prior to joining FSIS, Dr. Esteban worked in several positions at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). From 1994 to 2002, he was an Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer, a Staff Epidemiologist in the National Center for Environmental Health, and an Assistant Director for the CDC Food Safety Office.

He received his Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine from Mexico’s National University, a Master of Business Administration Degree from the Panamerican Institute, and a Master of Preventive Veterinary Medicine Degree, as well as a Doctorate in Epidemiology from the University of California at Davis.

In the hearing, Senate Agriculture Committee Ranking Member John Boozman (R-AR) asked Dr. Esteban about USDA’s recent announcement of its plan to declare Salmonella an adulterant in Not Ready to Eat (NRTE) but Appears Ready to Eat (RTE) chicken products and its plan to unveil a broad framework for Salmonella in other chicken products this fall.

“Dr. Esteban, if confirmed as Under Secretary,” Senator Boozman said, “how would you approach this significant effort, taking into mind the numerous factors that must be weighed including prevalence, risk, food waste, sustainability, and food insecurity?”

“Senator, thank you for asking me that question because I am extremely passionate about the topic of Salmonella,” Dr. Esteban said. “We’ve made tremendous progress in dropping the contamination of product over the course of the last 20 years, but we have not been able to make much of an impact on illnesses. … What the Agency is doing with this announcement in considering Salmonella as an adulterant in this one specific commodity (NRTE but appears RTE products) at a very, very low level is sending a message that we are serious about Salmonella.”

“I expect that over the next few weeks or months that the Agency will come out with a framework that does not just focus on the last point of the chain, which is at the consumer level, but from the beginning,” Dr. Esteban continued. “It is my expectation that we will address the quality of product that has to be presented for slaughter, controlled during the slaughter process, during the processing of the food, as well as a final product. If that is not enough, we need to continue to work with consumers on proper handling, storage, and preparing of that food. So, the answer to the Salmonella question is going to be one that is going to bring everybody together. It is a complex answer, but we will certainly make progress.”

 

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