On Monday, amid the rapidly intensifying COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Senate quietly approved a controversial scientist from Texas to oversee the safety of the nation’s supply of meat, poultry, and eggs. The confirmation of Mindy Brashears, formerly a food researcher at Texas Tech University, marks the end of the Trump administration’s two-year fight to install an industry-friendly bureaucrat as the nation’s top food safety official. Advocates said on Tuesday that Brashears’ confirmation could further erode food safety at a time when many Americans are scrambling to find safe food to eat.
Brashears was nominated to serve as undersecretary of food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2018. Before that, she was the director of Texas Tech’s International Center for Food Industry Excellence, where she experimented with ways to eliminate pathogens on meat products and invented new food decontamination devices. At the same time, she was deepening her ties to agribusiness: She was paid $100,000 by a South Dakota meat company to testify on its behalf in a high-profile libel lawsuit against ABC; she accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in research funding from industry groups and, in some cases, published research that was favorable to them; she went on NBC’s Today show to defend agribusiness when reports of contaminated meat surfaced.
So it should come as no surprise that industry groups cheered Trump’s decision to nominate Brashears for the top food safety regulator in the nation. The position wields enormous power: The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has almost 8,000 inspectors stationed in processing facilities across the United States, where they check live animals and take up fixed positions along slaughter lines to spot infected carcasses. The agency can issue public health alerts and has the power to shut down businesses if they don’t follow federal rules.
Industry representatives had a sense, it seemed, that Brashears would be good for business. “Mindy Brashears is great news for us here in the industry,” a lobbyist for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association said in a 2018 radio interview.
Brashears was set to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate until December 2018, when the nomination expired because a new Congress was formed. Brashears was renominated for the undersecretary job last year. In the meantime, the Trump administration appointed Brashears as deputy undersecretary of food safety, a position requiring no Senate confirmation. With the position above her vacant, Brashears has been the de facto food safety czar for more than a year.
That’s why, in May, Brashears was able to advance a plan that allowed the U.S. pork industry to go hog wild, allowing slaughterhouses to run lines at unlimited speeds and replacing government meat inspectors with company employees. The deregulatory policy, which was pushed by the meat industry, would generate an additional $2 million in revenue for large plants each year, but it also would put workers at increased risk of injury. An employee at one of the deregulated plants told the Observer that the plan was “a recipe for disaster.” The system could be extended to beef processing facilities in the future.
Tony Corbo, a lobbyist with advocacy group Food & Water Watch, says Brashears hasn’t been interested in cracking down on agribusiness during her tenure as deputy undersecretary. “Instead, she has embraced deregulatory efforts to remove USDA inspectors from hog slaughter lines and turn their responsibilities to company employees to perform,” he says.
Karen Perry Stillerman, a food and environment analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, says Brashears’ confirmation is particularly dangerous during the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. “Especially in the current crisis—when federal food safety inspectors and all kinds of food system workers are risking their health on the job—government leaders should make decisions solely on the basis of science and public protection, not corporate interests,” she says.
Corbo, Perry Stillerman, and other advocates have warned for years that Trump’s pick for undersecretary was too cozy with industry to be an effective regulator. Those fears appear to have been borne out, at least partially, even as Brashears lacked the title of top dog.