During last week’s IAFP meetings in Salt Lake City, I had the opportunity to chat with FSIS Administrator Carmen Rottenberg, who is also serving as USDA’s Acting Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety.
I did not record our talk nor did I take copious notes because I just wanted to have a normal conversation with her. For those of you who might be disappointed in that, I am listing a couple recent Rottenberg on the Record sources at the end of this column.
Anyone who’s been paying attention during the last five years is not surprised to see that this 39-year old Michigan native and mother of three has taken over at FSIS after the decade-plus run by Texan Al Almanza.
It’s been Rottenberg who’s been on the move at FSIS, holding down such jobs as chief of staff, and chief operating officer. And only hours elapsed between Almanza’s retirement to take over food safety at protein powerhouse JBS, and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue’s decision to name Rottenberg as acting deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety.
In his last three years on the job, Almanza was both acting deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety and FSIS Administrator. There was some in-house grumbling about that. If one did not like something Almanza was doing, the only recourse was to the Secretary of Agriculture.
On Aug.1, Perdue split those duties between Rottenberg, as the acting deputy Under Secretary, and Paul Kiecker as acting FSIS administrator. Then in May, President Trump nominated Texas Tech University Professor Mindy Brashears as the next Under Secretary for Food Safety.
Secretary Purdue immediately followed up by naming Rottenberg as FSIS Administrator with Kiecker as her deputy and with Rottenberg continuing at the acting deputy Under Secretary until a nominee for that position is confirmed by the Senate.
While she cannot get involved in the politics, Rottenberg made it clear she will welcome Prof. Brashears confirmation and is prepared for a seamless transition.
Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Sr, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in World War II, was fond of saying: “When in command, command.” During their ten months in their acting roles, Rottenberg and Kiecker heeded the Nimitz-like philosophy.
They determined there would be no break in the action at FSIS just because they were holding temporary positions. They pressed ahead with swine modernization, work with small plants, and improved transparency.
Also. USDA inked a new agreement last January that will have FSIS working through issues involving “dual-jurisdiction” facilities with FDA with the goal of streamlined regulations and fewer inspections.
What you quickly learn from a chat with Rottenberg is that she knows every nook and cranny of FSIS, which is kind of a cumbersome beast, and all of its policy nuisances.
Rottenberg holds a B.A. in Political Science and Philosophy from Hope College in Holland, MI and a law degree from American University’s Washington College of Law.
She started out in the Federal Trade Commission’s General Counsel’s office and moved over to USDA as an equal opportunity specialist in 2007. She worked up to be USDA’s deputy director for civil rights before moving into FSIS’s executive offices.
FSIS is unique in the federal government in that it’s over 9,000 employees largely work at the 6,200 private establishments that produce the nation’s meat and poultry, eggs, and catfish. They are at these duty stations to provide continuous inspection.
Not all of these are on or near Broadway, meaning the Administrator has to be concerned about recruitment for what are sometimes called “undesirable locations.”
Newly minted women veterinarians, who’ve never worked for a major organization, are increasingly making FSIS a career choice. Rottenberg says FSIS can then move them up and out after a couple of years.
Rottenberg manages a $1 billion budget at FSIS, and she has wrung the most out of it with through reorganizations and streamlining. She thinks Congress would up the agency’s budget for right technology improvements.
As during their temporary gigs, Rottenberg will have Kiecker at her side as her deputy.
In addition to his acting stint as FSIS Administrator, Kiecker was a district manager and an executive for both regulatory and field operations.
Also, it’s become pretty apparent that Rottenberg had the confidence of Secretary Perdue.
After a chat, a Rottenberg decade at FSIS seems entirely possible.