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Expected Nominee for Top Food Safety Slot Already Provoking Controversy

The White House has yet to nominate anyone for the top food safety slot at the Agriculture Department, but public health and consumer advocates have already started a quiet campaign against the job’s frontrunner.

Michael Doyle, a professor at the University of Georgia and director of the school’s Center for Food Safety, is certainly no registered lobbyist. But his critics charge that he’s too cozy with the meat industry that he would be in charge of regulating as undersecretary for food safety at USDA.

“It’s usually Republicans who nominate consultants to the [industry] to be in charge of meat and poultry inspection,— said Carol Tucker Foreman, a food safety expert with the Consumer Federation of America and a former USDA official in the Carter administration. “I like Mike Doyle. I think he’s a good microbiologist, but he’s coming at it from the wrong end of the microscope — from a food technology standpoint, not a public health standpoint.—

Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, was harsher, calling Doyle a “shill for industry.—

“He has been deployed routinely by industry as an expert to speak about risks and downplay them and defend the use of antibiotics in livestock,— said Cook, adding that from the meat industry’s standpoint, “this would be their guy.—

Doyle, in an interview, said he wasn’t at liberty to confirm whether he was being considered for the position. But he said he has more than 30 years in the food safety arena and has strong working relationships with governmental organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and some groups in the food processing industry.

His laboratory developed the first test to detect E. coli and determined the cooking time and temperatures to eradicate the harmful bacteria from meat. He works with companies such as McDonald’s to “help them bulletproof their system so they don’t have problems with E. coli and salmonella,— he said.

“The primary reason I work with food companies is that’s who makes most of the food that we eat,— Doyle said. “And if we’re going to make a major impact on [food safety] you have to work with the companies. That’s why I work with the industry and often why CDC comes to me — because I have that relationship that will get the industry engaged.—

Doyle added, “There’s a large difference among companies in terms of their commitment to food safety, and I work with those that are highly committed to food safety.—

Even so, he said, his consulting ties to the food industry have been overblown. He said he did serve as a spokesman for the National Chicken Council during the avian influenza scare. The group said it paid Doyle about $12,000 for about a year, including expenses.

Chicken Council spokesman Richard Lobb said Doyle was one of two consultants who “provided advice and made sure everything we were saying about food safety in the context of avian influenza was accurate.—

Lobb noted that the nomination for undersecretary of food safety is entirely up to President Barack Obama. “We have no opinion on Mr. Obama’s appointments, but we certainly respect [Doyle]. He’s an expert,— Lobb said. “He’s a straight shooter. He just tells you the scientific facts.—

Another public interest advocate who would speak only on background said he and his colleagues are troubled by Doyle’s affiliation with the American Council on Science and Health. Doyle is one of among hundreds of leading scientific advisers to the organization, which, according to its Web site, is a “consumer education consortium concerned with issues related to food, nutrition, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, lifestyle, the environment and health.— But this source said the council is “vehemently anti-regulatory.—

Jeff Stier, ACSH associate director, strongly disagrees with that assessment of his organization.

“My organization represents consumers around the country,— Stier said. “These groups who think, if you disagree with us, then you’re in the pocket of industry’ — I find that a very offensive allegation … to suggest that someone’s paying us to lie. The very thing that makes us credible is that we have so many wonderful scientists, like Dr. Doyle, advising us.—

In an interesting twist, one of the candidates that consumer groups have floated as their preferred pick for the food safety job is Caroline Smith DeWaal, who directs the food safety program at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The catch? She was recently a registered lobbyist for the group, and the Obama administration has famously said that, with very few exceptions, lobbyists need not apply.