Organic Food Expert Tapped For Deputy Secretary of USDA

President Barack Obama chose Kathleen Merrigan, an assistant professor at Tufts University who helped develop U.S. organic food labeling rules, for the Agriculture Department’s No. 2 job, the White House said on Monday, according to the Reuters news service.

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Merrigan, tapped for deputy secretary of Agriculture, was head of USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service from 1999-2001 during the Clinton era and helped develop USDA’s rules on what can be sold as organic food. As a Senate aide, she worked on the 1990 law that recognized organic farming.

"Sustainable and organic farmers are excited … that someone who has been associated with these issues her whole career is going to be at that level in the department," said Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

Hoefner encouraged the Senate to confirm Merrigan for the post.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was confirmed on Jan 20. The deputy agriculture secretary usually oversees day-to-day operations of USDA.

Merrigan, who went to work at Tufts in Boston after serving at USDA, has worked at the Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture and as a consultant for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization from 1994-99. She worked on the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee from 1987-92. She has a doctoral degree in environmental planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The choice of Merrigan was hailed by the Consumers Union, which has been critical of USDA organic labeling standards in regard to the production of meat, poultry and dairy.

“Kathleen Merrigan is an excellent choice for Deputy Secretary of Agriculture. Given her experience and background, we would expect her to be a strong defender of USDA’s organic standards, which have been under repeated attack for the last several years,” said Jean Halloran, Director of Food Policy Initiatives at Consumers Union.

“Merrigan will bring an excellent perspective to a number of troublesome labeling issues now before the agency, including loopholes in the current ‘grass fed’ standard, lack of uniformity in meat marketing claims across meat, poultry and dairy items, defining ‘raised without antibiotics’ label claims, and weaknesses in the current definition of ‘naturally raised,’” said Halloran.