WASHINGTON, Dec. 22, 2016 - Elsa Murano, a former undersecretary for food safety at USDA who later served a rocky tenure as president of Texas A&M University, will be interviewed by President-elect Donald Trump to become secretary of agriculture.

During a transition conference call, Trump spokesman Jason Miller said only that Murano “comes very highly recommended from the information that I have and obviously, her track record of running a major university really speaks for itself.”

The Cuban-born Murano, who is still a professor at A&M and also a member of the board of Hormel Foods, directing the university’s Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture, would add a woman and a Hispanic to the administration. Most of the major nominations so far have gone to white men.

Murano, 57, oversaw USDA’s meat and poultry inspection responsibilities during George W. Bush’s first term. During her tenure, the Food Safety and Inspection Service was struggling to lower outbreaks of E. coli and other pathogens and to respond to biosecurity concerns in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Shortly after the attacks, Murano indicated support for reorganizing federal food safety responsibilities, an idea that never caught on with more senior officials in the administration. Murano was a proponent of irradiating meat to prevent disease outbreaks, a concept she researched both at A&M and in an earlier post at Iowa State University, but the idea never overcame stiff resistance from consumer advocates. 

During her tenure at USDA, her husband, Peter, now a nutrition professor at A&M, was deputy administrator at USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, a post that gave him oversight of school meal programs. 

She returned to A&M, one of the nation's most prestigious agricultural research institutions, after she left USDA and became vice chancellor of agriculture and life sciences in 2005, which put her in charge of not only the college of agriculture but also the A&M experiment station and state extension service. In 2008, she was named president of the university but she stepped down in 2009 following a clash with her superior, the university chancellor, Mike McKinney, a former chief of staff to then-Gov. Rick Perry, who is now Trump’s nominee for energy secretary.

A&M colleague: Murano backed faculty, students 

McKinney reportedly gave Murano a highly negative review ahead of a university board of regents meeting. According to an account by Inside Higher Ed, McKinney accused Murano of working on behalf of faculty rather than the regents.

The story quoted Murano as saying that McKinney’s claims were “ludicrous” and that McKinney had “incredibly … rated me a 1 [the lowest rating on a 5-point scale] in terms of being a team player. Does this simply refer to the fact that I question ideas and plans that cross my desk that are troubling and which I consider as potentially damaging to the university?”

Gary Acuff, a Texas A&M professor who originally recruited her to the university in the 1990s, said that as president “she had to make a decision between representing the people, the faculty and students, she was serving and maybe some political interests, and I think she made the right choice.” A&M's primary College Station campus has a current enrollment of nearly 61,000 students. 

Acuff, who is a member of USDA’s National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Foods, described Murano as fearless, smart, good with people and passionate about feeding the world’s poor, a focus of her current position at the Borlaug Institute. 

The Borlaug Institute, named for the Nobel laureate who is considered the father of the Green Revolution, designs and implements agricultural development programs aimed at helping small-holder farmers in poor countries improve food production. Earlier this year, she was visiting projects at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul when the campus was attacked, killing more than a dozen people, Acuff said. 

As vice chancellor, one of her initiatives was to change the name of the experiment station to Texas A&M Agri-Life Research. It was a small but effective marketing move that was initially questioned by many people, but it better communicated the work and importance of the experiment station, Acuff said. 

The news that Trump will interview Murano follows a meeting earlier this week between another Texan, Susan Combs, and Vice President-elect Mike Pence. Combs, who served two terms as Texas agriculture commissioner, has the public support for the House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, for the USDA post. Conaway declined to comment on Murano.

Regan Beck, director of government affairs for the Texas Farm Bureau, praised Murano for her tenure as vice chancellor in charge of Texas A&M’s sprawling programs in agriculture and life sciences.  “We think very highly of her,” he said. She “really always had agriculture at heart. We thought she was a good voice for agriculture and she always had an open door for us. We think she would serve us very ably” as agriculture secretary. 

Murano tangled with consumer advocates over meat irradiation, rules

Murano took some steps to crack down on meat processors in the wake of a major recall of E.coli-tainted beef linked to a Colorado packer owned at the time by ConAgra, but she frequently clashed with consumer advocates over irradiation and other issues. 

Bill Marler, an attorney who successfully sued food companies repeatedly over E. coli and pathogens, said Murano was “incredibly competent and well respected” within industry although he didn’t think she went far enough in forcing the industry to prevent outbreaks.”There wasn’t a lot of what I consider positive movement to the extent that we saw under” her successors under Bush and President Obama, he said. 

Marler said he would expect Murano, if she gets the position, to focus more on agriculture policy than on food safety. 

The view of Acuff, Murano’s A&M colleague, was that she successfully balanced the politics and the uncertain science involved in regulating food safety.

But Murano sometimes clashed with consumer advocacy groups and ended the monthly meetings she had with them. At one point, the groups got a meeting with Veneman and Murano to air their grievances with the undersecretary, said Tony Corbo of Food and Water Watch. Veneman “was taken back by some the things that we were saying, Corbo said. Corbo said he complained that Murano had been photographed next to raw meat while she wasn't wearing a hair net, a requirement of USDA inspectors. 

However, Corbo praised Murano for acting in the wake of the 2002 ConAgra outbreak to require beef processors to implement controls for E. coli contamination unless they could prove the bacteria were not a risk.

Murano was interviewed for the USDA post during a meeting of the department’s National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection. At the meeting, she told consumer group representatives that she was interested in removing the prohibition on meat irradiation, Corbo said. While she and her husband were at USDA, the department ran a pilot project on using irradiated beef in some Minnesota schools. 

Veneman declined to comment, saying it was inappropriate for her to discuss anyone under consideration for agriculture secretary.  

Barry Carpenter, who is now president and CEO of the North American Meat Institute, which represents processors, spent 37 years at USDA and was a top official in USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service when Murano was undersecretary of food safety. He said in a statement that she was “a brilliant scientist” and “consummate professional.”  “She has dedicated her career to enhancing food safety, whether in the lab or through results-oriented policymaking,” he said.

(Updated Dec. 23 with NAMI statement.)