The U.S. Senate will have to step it up a notch to confirm Dr. Jose Emilio Esteban as the USDA’s Under Secretary for Food Safety before the year ends.

President Biden nominated Esteban to serve in the post Nov.12. Esteban is currently Chief Scientist for USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), a position he has held since 2018. He will become the federal government’s top food safety official if confirmed.

As of this week, the job has been vacant for nine months. Mindy Brashears stepped down when the new administration took over on Jan. 20.

The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry is assigned to review the Esteban nomination and recommend for or against confirmation.

However, with just two weeks remaining before 2021 ends, there is no sign that the Ag Committee has made any progress on the Esteban nomination. The required public hearing has not appeared on any public schedules.

Some past candidates for Under Secretary for Food Safety from the private sector have had vetting challenges because of their research or patent holdings. As a public sector employee with FSIS since 2006, Esteban has a distinguished career record, likely without such entanglements.

 As FSIS Chief Scientist, Esteban provides scientific advice to support agency policies, including microbiology, chemistry and pathology. 

It is his fourth position within FSIS, all within the Office of Public Health Science. Before his current assignment, he was Executive Associate for Laboratory Services, the Scientific Advisor for Laboratory Services and Research Coordination, and the Laboratory Director for the Western Laboratory.

 Before joining USDA, he worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as an Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer, Staff Epidemiologist, and Assistant Director of the Food Safety Office.

Outside the U.S. federal government, Esteban is also the Chair for the Codex Alimentarius Commission Committee on Food Hygiene. This committee sets definitions for international food hygiene standards for international trade. He is also currently vice president of the International Association for Food Protection (IAFP). 

Esteban was trained as a veterinarian in Mexico and supplemented his training with an MBA, a Master’s Degree in Preventive Veterinary Medicine, and a Ph.D. in Epidemiology from the University of California-Davis.

The White House did name Sandra Eskin on March 17 as Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety.   Deputy jobs do not require Senate confirmation and Eskin went to work shortly after being named to the No. 2 food safety job.

Eskin was long known as the food safety project director for The Pew Charitable Trusts. In that role, Eskin was known for bringing diverse parties together to work on common solutions for food safety challenges.  Eskin will head USDA’s Office of Food Safety until the Senate gets around to confirming Esteban.

The USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety is an office established by Congress in 1994 in a Reorganization Act, but it’s been kept vacant much of the time by both Democratic and Republican administrations.  If confirmed, Esteban will be the sixth Under Secretary for Food Safety.

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