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WASHINGTON - Ann Veneman, the United States' first female Agriculture Secretary, resigned after four years on a job during which she earned high marks for the handling of the first reported case of mad cow disease on American soil last winter.
There was no immediate word on whom President Bush would nominate to head the $80 billion agency, although a successor for the cabinet-level post was expected to be announced shortly. Names of possible replacements being floated around the nation's capital include Allen Johnson, the current farm negotiator with the U.S. Trade Representative's office; White House agriculture adviser Chuck Conner; and 13-term Texas representative Charles Stenholm, a farm policy expert and Democrat who was defeated Nov. 2.
Veneman, a California lawyer, was the first woman to head the USDA. She grew up on her family's peach farm near Modesto, Calif. and joined the administration after serving as California's Secretary of Food and Agriculture, which was preceded by previous posts at the USDA.
Several trade associations saluted Veneman Monday, including the American Meat Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers of America. J. Patrick Boyle, AMI's president, praised Veneman's leadership on a host of agricultural issues, noting that the USDA's response to the first BSE case has helped drive consumer confidence to near-record-high levels. "The last 12 months have presented intense challenges for Secretary Veneman and her department, and she has faced them with vision and commitment," said Boyle.
Additionally, Boyle said the USDA's food safety efforts "have complemented the industry's own food safety initiatives," which he said have recently resulted in dramatic decreases in occurrences of bacteria on raw meat and poultry. "She is to be commended for this outstanding record and her tireless efforts on behalf of U.S. agriculture," noted Boyle.
Manly Molpus, GMA president and c.e.o., said Veneman's tenure has resulted in increased trade opportunities and confidence in the safety of the U.S. food supply. "As the authoritative voice for American food and agriculture, Secretary Veneman has helped to dismantle many trade barriers that exist for processed foods in the global marketplace. Her support for science-based policies as well as comprehensive trade agreements has been critically important."
Hailing Veneman for providing "much needed leadership during food safety crises here and abroad," Molpus said, "She has effectively worked with our trading partners, including Canada, Japan, and Mexico, to ensure the safety of the American food supply and the security of the international food safety system."
The sentiments expressed by the often controversial Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest's statement were less commendatory. Said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson: "Ann Veneman deserves good grades for being willing to talk to consumer groups, but has a decidedly weak record on food safety and nutrition. She was a former food industry lawyer, and many of her top aides came from the very agribusinesses the USDA regulates."