Nation's Top Meat Safety Official Is Leaving USDA Post

Richard Raymond is credited with helping decrease salmonella rates.
Richard Raymond is credited with helping decrease salmonella rates. (AP)
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By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 27, 2008

Richard Raymond, the nation's top official charged with overseeing the safety of the nation's meat and poultry supply, is stepping down Oct. 1, ending a tenure noted for its emphasis on public health but also marked by a series of massive recalls, including the largest meat recall in U.S. history.

Raymond, 60, was the first physician to hold the post of undersecretary of food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"He brought a public health perspective, which we think was a good change for the agency," said Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America.

Raymond is credited with helping drive down rates of salmonella in poultry. He employed a policy in which the names of poultry plants that had too many samples test positive for salmonella were posted online. That policy went into effect earlier this year.

The agency "has been very willing to try new approaches under him," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington advocacy group.

His biggest challenge was containing E. coli O157:H7, a potentially deadly bacteria that can be spread through ground beef. When he was appointed in 2005, the number of beef samples that tested positive for the pathogen had been on the decline, a fact that he used at congressional hearings to tout the USDA's food safety efforts. But in 2007, the number of positive samples began to rise for reasons that scientists still don't understand, and people soon fell ill from eating tainted beef. An outbreak led to the September 2007 recall of more than 21 million pounds of ground beef by Elizabeth, N.J.-based Topps Meat.

Then in January, an undercover video released by the Humane Society of the United States exposed inhumane handling of cows too sick to stand at Westland/Hallmark Meat Co., which operated a slaughter facility in Chino, Calif., despite the presence of USDA inspectors. It led to the recall of more than 140 million pounds of meat, the largest meat recall in U.S. history.

After the Topps and Westland/Hallmark recalls, Raymond helped put in place several new policies such as releasing the names of retail stores that received recalled meat that was likely to make people sick. But he sometimes said he felt frustrated that he was not able to move more quickly. The retail rule languished for months at the Office of Management and Budget. It finally went into effect in August, after an E. coli outbreak sickened more than 40 people in seven states and prompted the Omaha meat packer Nebraska Beef to recall more than 5 million pounds of beef.

"He was really stymied by an antiquated statute and a set of political circumstances that got in the way of change," said Michael Taylor, a George Washington University professor who was the first to hold Raymond's post after it was created in the mid-1990s.

Over the summer, Raymond advanced the idea of making it illegal to sell intact cuts of beef -- used to make steaks and roasts -- that were contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 because such meat often goes into ground beef. But he backed off after the beef industry balked.

American Meat Institute President J. Patrick Boyle in a written statement called Raymond "a devoted public servant with a constant focus on improving public health."

Raymond came to the USDA after serving as the director of the Nebraska department of health. He is moving to Colorado to be closer to grandchildren, said agency spokeswoman Amanda Eamich.

Beth Johnson, a seasoned USDA insider, will be the acting undersecretary of food safety. She was most recently deputy chief of staff to Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer.

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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