Trump’s nominee to head the food safety division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture is deeply entangled with agribusiness.
According to ethics documents obtained by the Observer, Texas Tech University animal scientist Mindy Brashears has earned at least $320,000 from her ties to five companies while conducting academic research into food safety in the last six years.
She’s taken $100,000 from a South Dakota beef processor to defend the company in a high-profile lawsuit, insisting to a jury that ABC News violated the law when it referred to the company’s “lean, finely-textured beef” product as “pink slime.” The records also show she has been paid more than $200,000 in consulting fees and royalties by an Oklahoma animal feed company for sales of a cattle probiotic — a product developed by Brashears. She’s been paid for consulting work for grain trader Cargill, pharmaceutical giant Merck and Perdue Farms, the third biggest chicken grower in the country, among others.
Along with shedding light on previously undisclosed payment amounts to Brashears, the records indicate that administrators at Texas Tech found “conflicts of interest exist or may exist” in at least two of her arrangements.
In May, Brashears was nominated by Trump to lead the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, a regulatory agency tasked with making sure the country’s supply of meat, chicken and eggs is safe to eat. The agency has almost 8,000 inspectors stationed in food processing facilities across the United States, where they eyeball live animals and take up fixed position along slaughter lines to spot infected carcasses. The agency also issues “public health alerts” when it believes contaminated products are on the market, launches investigations into industry rule-breaking and has the power to shut businesses down.
Brashears’ scholarly bona fides are solid. She holds a doctorate in food microbiology from Oklahoma State University, and she’s been a professor at Texas Tech since 1997. But some food safety and government accountability experts question if she can make impartial decisions given her financial ties to agribusiness.
“The question is what kind of bias is she coming in with here,” said Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist at Food and Water Watch, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group. At a minimum, Corbo said Brashears “shouldn’t reap any benefits for what she’s done [for industry] while she’s a public official.”
Brashears has not responded to several requests for comment regarding her potential conflicts.
One of Brashears’ biggest industry windfalls came when she was the star witness in the “pink slime” defamation suit brought by South Dakota meat processor Beef Products Inc. against ABC News. Brashears testified during the 2017 trial that the news network’s characterization of lean finely textured beef as “pink slime” was inaccurate and that the product is safe, wholesome and “100 percent beef.” The company sought $1.9 billion in damages; eventually a confidential settlement was reached. BPI paid Brashears $100,000 to testify and to run tests on its products at a Texas Tech laboratory, the records show.
Her involvement in the case has been previously reported by the Observer, but the payment amounts have not been made public until now. Brashears reported her financial arrangements in ethics disclosures required by Texas Tech from 2013 to 2018. The Observer first requested the documents in May, but only recently obtained them after the Texas attorney general ruled that the university couldn’t keep details of the arrangements secret.
The documents indicate Texas Tech University officials were wary of one arrangement struck between Brashears and Nutrition Physiology Company, LLC, an Oklahoma company that distributes Bovamine, a cattle probiotic developed by Brashears and endorsed by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. Records show that she has been paid at least $215,000 by the company — an unspecified portion of which was compensation for pitching the product to feedlot operators in the hopes of drumming up sales.
Nutrition Physiology Company has sunk hundreds of thousands of dollars into research conducted by Brashears and her colleagues, including studies of whether Bovamine is effective at reducing the levels of harmful microorganisms in beef cattle. In 2010, Brashears published a peer-reviewed article in Food Production Trends that found Bovamine cultures reduced E. coli levels on spinach. She obtained the cultures from Nutrition Physiology, which also financed the study. In 2003, Brashears also published a study concluding that Nutrition Physiology’s probiotics could curb E. coli in cattle. That study was partially funded by the American Meat Institute Foundation. She came to a similar conclusion in this 2007 study.
In her Texas Tech ethics filings, Brashears argues that she can’t cook the books, so to speak, when it comes to the sponsored research — “all data are blinded and all analysis is conducted by other individuals when we have a project,” she wrote.
When Brashears’ nomination for the USDA post was announced, a lobbyist for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association hailed it as “great news for us here in the industry.” The Texas Farm Bureau has called Brashears “a key expert in her field.” When Consumer Reports found alarming levels of bacteria during a survey of hundreds of pounds of conventional beef, Brashears shrugged the study off, telling viewers of NBC’s “Today” show, “The beef industry in the U.S. is safe.”
Ricardo Salvador, a former Iowa State University agronomist who now works for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said arrangements such as Brashears’ are troubling but increasingly common. As federal funding for crop and animal research at public universities dwindles, industry money has filled the void. Though some level of industry influence over scientists is almost unavoidable, Brashears has been “particularly successful” at using her government role to succeed in private business, Salvador said.
“She would be in the upper echelon,” he said.
University administrators found that Brashears’ stake in MicroZap, a biotech company, presented a possible conflict of interest. MicroZap sells a device that uses “directional” microwaves to kill harmful microorganisms in food. Brashears values her ownership interest in the company at $500,000, and she reports in her disclosures that “there is overlap” between MicroZap testing and her university work. In a 2008 study published in Poultry Science, Brashears and colleagues determined that directional microwave technology can reduce salmonella in whole-shell eggs without damaging their quality. Brashears acknowledges that “positive outcomes of research could result in sales of equipment and a financial gain for me personally.”
The disclosures also show that Brashears has an ownership interest in NexGen Innovations LLC, which markets a lactic acid probiotic called Probicon developed by Brashears. At Texas Tech, Brashears has taken part in at least four research projects to gauge how effective lactic acid is in reducing pathogen levels in food, three of which have been sponsored by agribusiness, including trade groups Dairy Management Inc. and the Texas Beef Council. In the Dairy Management Inc.-sponsored study, which looks at using lactic acid bacteria to curb listeria levels in cheese, Brashears lays out the potential conflict: “If work is successful, it could result in sales of the probiotic that is used in the research project. Sales would benefit me as an owner,” she wrote. Among other Texas Tech faculty with an ownership stake in NexGen is Brashears’ husband, Todd.
Aside from direct financial gains, Brashears also has accepted industry funding for research projects; the National Cattlemen’s Association, a trade group that lobbies for the cattle industry, has paid tens of thousands of dollars to fund several of her studies. The National Pork Board and the National Pork Producers Council also have sponsored research.
A USDA spokesman told the Observer that “the issue of separation from her former business interests was addressed prior to her nomination,” adding that Brashears will be subject to a two-year “cooling-off” period. Per Trump’s ethics pledge, political appointees must steer clear of such matters for at least two years after their appointments. But the administration previously has waived ethics rules for some appointees, including those at USDA, allowing them to keep one foot in industry.
Brashears said she’ll divest her interest in NexGen Innovations if she gets the USDA job, but made no similar promise regarding MicroZap. Brashears’ appointment must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee. A Democratic committee aide said in August that Brashears was still being vetted. No hearing date has been scheduled.