A Texas Tech University professor and food scientist with close ties to the agriculture industry has been tapped by President Donald Trump to oversee food safety for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Mindy Brashears, who also heads the university’s International Center for Food Industry Excellence, was nominated on Monday for the post, which has been vacant since 2013. It’s one of the federal agency’s highest-ranking positions and requires U.S. Senate confirmation. And though Brashears is an accomplished food safety expert, which at first glance makes her a good pick to ensure the safety of the nation’s meat, poultry and eggs, she also has a financial stake in the industry.
For example, Brashears holds seven patents and has applied for 14 more regarding food decontamination. Many of those patents are related specifically to eliminating bacteria from beef and pork — two products the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service directly oversees. The division has inspectors stationed at more than 6,000 food processing facilities. If Brashears doesn’t divest herself from the patents, she could profit from the very industry she’s regulating, said Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist at Food and Water Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for food and water safety.
At least some of Brashears’ research at Texas Tech has been sponsored by industry. 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, and the National Pork Board and the National Pork Producers Council also have sponsored research. Industry-sponsored research is an increasingly common phenomenon at universities nationwide where Big Ag has gladly filled research funding gaps created by government budget cuts. Last year, Brashears was the star witness in the “pink slime” defamation suit brought by South Dakota meat processor Beef Products Inc. against ABC. Brashears testified during the 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.
Industry has cheered Brashears’ nomination. Colin Woodall, a lobbyist for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said in a radio interview on Monday that “Mindy Brashears is great news for us here in the industry.” The Texas Farm Bureau called Brashears “a key expert in her field.”
At times, Brashears herself has come off like a spokesperson for the meat industry. After Consumer Reports found alarming levels of bacteria during a survey of hundreds of pounds of conventional beef, Brashears told NBC’s “Today” show, “The beef industry in the U.S. is safe.”
But food safety advocates say that her expertise is colored by her financial involvement with Big Ag. “A lot of her research she has done has been paid for by the industry itself, and primarily the beef industry,” said Corbo. “Whether she can take into account consumer perspectives on some of these food safety issues is going to be something we’re looking at.” Corbo said he anticipates that senators will question Brashears about her potential conflicts of interest during the confirmation process.
Brashears did not immediately return an Observer call for comment on this story on Tuesday.
The Trump administration has repeatedly returned to Texas to find nominees who’ve been exceptionally friendly to business interests. Last year, Trump nominated Kathleen Hartnett White, an aggressively pro-industry former chair of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to lead the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality. (Her nomination was ultimately pulled after it became clear she wouldn’t be confirmed). The administration also tapped former Texas Comptroller Susan Combs, a critic of the Endangered Species Act, for a top position at the U.S. Department of the Interior. Trey Trainor, a Texas attorney who tried to shred the state’s already-weak ethics laws, was nominated last year to a post on the Federal Election Commission. In April, Trump nominated to the federal bench a former deputy attorney general who stymied the Texas investigation into Trump University.
Trump’s USDA has already proved to be friendly to industry. Last year it nixed the Farmer Fair Practice Rule, which would have protected contract chicken farmers from the companies they say drive them into debt through shady business practices. The Trump USDA has also approved increasing the line speeds at pork slaughter facilities, despite some workers’ contentions that the lines are already too fast and dangerous. But there’s no guarantee Brashears will make it through the nomination process — lawmakers have a long line of Trump nominations to clear already, and there’s no currently no timeline for her confirmation.