(VIDEO) Brashears returned to Texas Tech in 2021 after serving as the country’s chief food safety expert.
Mindy Brashears, one of the leading food safety experts in the U.S. and the Associate Vice President for Research in the Office of Research & Innovation at Texas Tech University, had the opportunity of a lifetime as she served as the Undersecretary of Agriculture in Food Safety in the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the President Donald Trump administration.
Formerly a professor of food microbiology and food safety in the Department of Animal & Food Sciences, housed within the Davis College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources and the director of the International Center for Food Industry Excellence (ICFIE), Brashears endured a lengthy and sometimes convoluted confirmation process to reach the post, but in her short time in the position, she was able to continue past initiatives and begin new ones to ensure the U.S. continues to have the safest food supply in the world. Recently, Brashears reflected on her time in Washington D.C. and how it has affected her work going forward.
When you were first approached, what made you want to take this job?
I really was interested in the job because it is the highest-ranking food safety official in the U.S. Anyone who's in food safety knows this position, and it's like the highest government position you could have, but it's not something I ever thought I would be considered for. I was approached by a staffer in Congress, and they said, ‘Can we put your name in the hat?' And I was like, “Yes, sure,' but I really never thought it would move forward. So, when it started becoming real, it really became a consideration of the responsibility and the impact you can have on the industry, and also being able to champion that at a higher level of government.
The nomination and the confirmation were kind of a convoluted deal. What was it like going through that process?
The confirmation, and the whole process, was very difficult. No one really understands what this is. There's not a book written about it. So, I was approached in December (2016) after the election, before President Trump was even in office and asked, “Would you consider this?” I said, yes, and they started vetting. The vetting went on, and I think in February or March (2017), they said, “Well, we want to move ahead with another level of vetting.” They did that. I finally ended up in D.C. for interviews in October and went to the White House. I met with Sonny Perdue, Secretary of Agriculture, passed that, and then in November, they said, ‘Oh, you're the choice.' So, I thought, man, it's been a year. It's been a long time. And little did I know, it was just starting.
So, at that point, we knew my daughter was going to be starting school in the next year and wanted her to go to a private school. We started the process of getting her in, and all these things happened. It was a contentious time, even though at that point the House and Senate were both Republican. They couldn't get nominees through because people were getting blocked. But, finally the next May (2018), I was officially nominated by the President. At that point, my daughter had already gotten into a school, we had found a place to live, and we were like, ‘Well, surely by August, I will have my hearing. But I didn't. So, we went ahead and moved to D.C. in August, and I started prepping for my hearing. I met all the members on the Senate Agriculture Committee, and for my hearing, they kept saying, ‘Maybe next week, maybe next week.'
Well, then something happened. Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court came in and that just blew everything up in D.C. So, they didn't put any nominations through. When that finally went through, they had midterm elections that finally ended in the last week of November (2018). I had my hearing, and the Senate hearing went great. I went out unanimously from the Senate Ag Committee to move forward. They called on Dec. 21. They said ‘You're going to be in a unanimous consent package. You'll be voted on tomorrow and start in January.' Well, the next day the government shut down, which lasted several weeks. They had a new Senate in January, so, technically, my nomination became obsolete. I had to start the process over.
At that point, Secretary Perdue said ‘OK, I've given them a year to get these nominees through.' It wasn't just me. It was several other undersecretaries. So, he appointed us as deputy undersecretaries and I started my job in that January of 2019. I kind of went through a little mini hearing with the staff, not the full Senate again. It went through again as unanimous consent and got to come the full Senate for a vote. Sen. John Kennedy put a hold on me, because of biofuels. He was having some disagreement with Secretary Perdue, so he put a hold on all agriculture nominees. Then, by March of 2021, we're in the middle of COVID, everything is shutting down in D.C, and I get a text message on my personal phone. It said that I'd been confirmed, and I thought it was for a restaurant reservation, but all the restaurants were closed, and I asked my husband, ‘Do we have a restaurant reservation somewhere, because all the restaurants are closed down? It says I'm confirmed in it.' And then I was like, ‘oh,' you know, ‘This is our liaison to Congress,' and I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness,' it was like 9:30 at night, and they voted on me. So, very uneventful at that point, but I was very grateful to finally be fully Undersecretary of Food Safety. So many things go on with that, but it's unfortunate that it has to be that way when there was never a vote against me, there was never anyone who objected to me, it was always ‘you're named as unanimous consent.' And it took that long to get in place as the undersecretary.
Obviously, you didn't know it was going to take that long. Did you have any concerns about leaving your position here at Texas Tech for this job?
I did. I had a lot of concerns. First of all, the university was great, because they allowed me to go on a leave of absence, so I knew I could come back to my job. But I had about 12 to 15 graduate students who had to finish, I had a commitment to them. So, I had to make sure that they were taken care of, and I came back for their defenses, I made sure there was funding in place, and just before I left, I was given an endowed chair and an endowment, so that money helped support them. They all finished, and everything happened. Also, there was responsibility to the department, the university and the commitments I had. Fortunately, it all worked out, and with the support of Texas Tech, I was able to stay there, have success there and then come back to this job. But, it's very difficult leaving academia and going into a government position. That transition is a little bit difficult.
So once you got to the job, describe your duties and what you focused on while you were there.
I had a number of responsibilities, I was able to actually champion across the finish line some really big programs that had been in the works for over 20 years. We finished egg modernization inspection, swine modernization, which really shifts how these processes work at the government level to focusing less on just visual inspection of a carcass, and focusing more on science and data-driven decisions. I was really excited to get to do that. We were also able to do a number of things with new programs for Salmonella performance standards and programs to reduce Salmonella in the food supply. And, really, over the past 20 years, the number of illnesses associated with Salmonella hasn't declined, so we got very aggressive with programs to address Salmonella to bring it down in our food supply. Those were the big things I was focusing on through 2019. Then 2020 hits and the focus shifted to COVID.
Obviously, this was an unorthodox administration to work for. What was it like being in D.C. working for them on a daily basis?
You know, it was great. There was the public perception of what was going on, then there was the reality. First of all, I was a female. There was this talk about no females in this administration. I was one of many females that I knew in the administration. Second of all, I was a scientist, and another thing you always heard in the media was there's no scientists, no data. I remember I went and sat before the House Ag Committee in the middle of COVID and spoke on how we were managing the food supply chain. Both sides, Democrats, Republicans, they looked at my vitae and they were like, ‘Wow, you're really qualified for this position.' They were stunned, and it was great because it brought a lot of respect, and the questions were very respectful. We were able to answer them with data, facts and science, and it didn't get into the political realm. There was never a time that I felt that I was not making a data-driven and science-based decision. I worked with Secretary Perdue on a daily basis. He's a veterinarian, so he got it, he understood science. I had a very high level of respect and a little bit of fear of him because he was so smart. Every time I went in the room with him to present a policy or something, he always knew the history and the data. He would always ask, ‘what if this,' but it was always solid science, that drove the policy of his, and I'm very grateful for that.
Because of your nomination process, you were you didn't get the full four-year experience. Was that kind of frustrating?
It was very frustrating. The nomination process, that really took probably a full year and a half of the time I could have been there. Then COVID really shifted the focus, so, I felt like there were so many things that I didn't get to finish, but I'm also grateful I was there to help manage the food supply chain during that time and make the data-driven decisions when it came down to food production.
What were some of the things that you didn't get to that you were hoping to get to when you get nominated?
We had a lot of plans for the Salmonella program. Before I left, in October of 2020, we had a large public meeting to address Salmonella and the things that we were going to do and roll out. But you know, we didn't get to do that. I didn't personally get to champion that, but now the agency continues to champion it, and it is a big, important project with them. So, I'm very happy we got that started and it's continuing. What I did learn is that you get to start things, but you don't get to finish a lot of things in government, because it takes five to eight years to get through the rulemaking process. That was very enlightening to understand how that worked. I was fortunate enough to get to finish a lot of things that were started before I got there, and I do still get to see that the things that we started are still rolling forward and moving toward a very positive science-based completion.
Would you do this again if you were asked to serve?
When I left in January of 2021, with all of the things going on in D.C. and Washington, with the election and the COVID thing, I thought ‘I'm done. I've just done with this. I'm so ready to leave.' Now that I've had some time to step back and gain perspective, yes, I would definitely go back just because of the responsibility of it. I think people assume I was in this high-ranking position and I made all this money, but actually those positions don't pay a lot of money. You have to be financially stable to go there and serve. But it's not about the money, it's about the responsibility in genuinely serving the people and making sure our food supplies is safe. I really take a lot of responsibility in that and knowing that the decisions that I made every single day could impact an individual and it could mean a life-or-death decision. I don't take that lightly. Yes, I would go back and serve knowing I would be better prepared, having the government experience along with the science background.
How did COVID affect your job in ways that maybe the general public didn't see?
First of all, there was some anxiety about keeping our inspectors safe. I have 9,500 employees out there and food production is essential and it's continuing, and I want to make sure they're safe. So, we worked very closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to make sure what we were doing was in line with what was safe. We talked about scientific data in the beginning of the pandemic in March and April of 2020. No one was wearing a mask. They were actually recommending not to wear a mask unless you're sick. Then the recommendation changed, and by that time, there were no masks, so we had to allow our inspectors to either, make their own masks or provide their own masks, and then we got criticized for that, but we wanted them to be safe. That was OK. We allowed any inspector who felt they were high risk to step off the line with no questions asked, and they didn't have to provide medical documentation. We had 1,000 inspectors just not work until we had all the mitigations in place and the data and science to make sure that we were mitigating the risk.
Then concerns shifted to the plant employees getting sick, food production declining, and the fear of the country not having food. If you can remember, at that time, the country was on a toilet paper shortage and people were hoarding it. Can you imagine the response if people thought we weren't going to have food? We knew it was a matter of national security. This got elevated to the President. It was all Zoom calls and phone calls, and here I was in my living room in D.C., with the Vice President and the President. The responsibility of that is huge. And they're like, ‘How are you going to make sure that we have food?' The President signed an executive order delegating his authority to Secretary Perdue to keep all food plants open under the Defense Production Act as a matter of national security. Secretary Perdue looked to me to execute that. So, it was a lot. I want to say we never had to use the executive order a single time. I'm all about talking, gathering data and information, and making a very sound decision. So, we went to all the major food companies that were closed down and we asked, ‘OK, what do you need?' They were like, ‘We need testing kits.' So, I would call Dr. Robert Redfield from the CDC, they would send a jet, they would send the test kits, I would test them, the tests would go out to California, and within 24 hours, I would have a test result. This is when the country didn't have very many test kits. They would say, ‘OK, these employees, even though they don't have symptoms, they're testing positive, and they can't go into work.' So, we would slow the line speed down, we would operate under reduced line speeds, but we would make sure it was safe. There would be companies that had to close down for two or three weeks, working with the local health department to make sure they were overseeing that. The CDC would send teams out to say, ‘OK, you need barriers at certain places to make sure this process is safe where you can't distance.' All of these things were happening behind the scenes to make sure that our food supply chain that was down 50% capacity, popped back up to 95% capacity within three to four weeks, but under safe conditions.
You've now approached the food safety issue from the scientific aspect, and now the administrative aspect. Assess the country's food safety readiness level.
I still stand on the fact that the U.S. has the safest food supply in the world. I'll say that after traveling to many other countries, working with my counterparts who were the highest-ranking food safety officials in other countries, we have the best and safest food supply in the world. That doesn't mean we can't get better, and we need to improve. But, what our industry does, and what the government does, is very strong, very solid. There is a commitment to making sure they protect public health and reduce foodborne illness.
How easy was it to come back and kind of get back in the routine here?
I'm still working on that. I still live in D.C. waiting for my daughter to graduate, and I've commuted from D.C. to Lubbock, which is challenging, but it was a little bit of an easy transition because I knew that my heart and my passion is in mentoring students and ensuring we have the next generation of food scientists to keep our food supply safe. I have some graduate students, now I have a postdoc, and I had a ton of ideas for research. I've been able to shift and use my administrative skills in my role as the Associate VP of Research working with Dr. Joseph Heppert and the team over in the Office of Research & Innovation, so it's been a really good fit and a good transition back for me.
Is there anything you learned in D.C. that you're implementing in your current position here at Texas Tech?
For me, it's a matter of perspective. Whenever I approach a research project now, I think about, ‘How can this drug policy, how can this actually be implemented in the industry and used to make our food supply safer?' And I have a different perspective in all the decisions that I make when we start a research project. Instead of simply doing something on the benchtop and saying, ‘I need to get this done, get it published and get tenure,' now, it's like we need to get this done and get it published so we can go out and make the food supply safer. That was always in the back of my mind, but now it's really in the forefront of my mind whenever I do a project.
Please share the story about your Chief of Staff.
They had to hire a Chief of Staff for me who is considered a political person. They're basically your right hand. They vet everything. They're really the first line of defense and they decide what gets to me and what decisions to make. Well, they call me, and they said, ‘We have hired a Chief of Staff for you, and you might know her, and they said, ‘It's Shawna Newsom.' I was like, ‘Oh, that was my husband's graduate student, and I worked with her in food safety programs in Mexico and actually served on her graduate committee.' So, she lived here with her master's degree and went to work in D.C. for National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA). She actually worked with Kristina Butts, who's now here at Texas Tech, and then she worked on the Hill for different congressman. Then, she got hired as my Chief of Staff at FSIS. So, we had two Texas Tech people there at the highest level of government leading food safety, and we already had a very strong relationship because I worked with her as a student. There was a high level of trust, and just an understanding because of that Texas Tech connection.
Did they know that?
Well, they knew she graduated from Texas Tech, but they didn't know I had any association with her. She had enough integrity not to say, ‘Oh, I know Mindy Brashears,' because she knew that would get her the job. She kept that quiet, so it didn't impact the integrity of the interview process.
I was named a graduate of distinction at OSU, and I had to give this lecture to a group of students, and it was all about relationships and how things come full circle, so I had to reflect back on my career. It's just so great to look back at Texas Tech and all the people that you interact with every day who might have an impact on your life 20 years later, and I was able to pull those stories out. That's just what Texas Tech means to me. It's the relationships and the people. Yes, I have a degree. Yes, I have numerous awards and titles and accolades, but it's the people that I have interacted with who have really influenced and impacted my career for the long term.