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Consumer Advocate to USDA

April 08, 1993|DANIEL P. PUZO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A leading consumer advocate, and one of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's harshest critics, has been nominated for a key USDA post by the Clinton Administration.

Ellen Haas, executive director of a Washington-based public interest group, was named Assistant Secretary for Food and Consumer Services by the White House Friday. Pending Congressional approval, she will be responsible for a significant portion of USDA operations, including all the feeding programs such as school lunch and food stamps.

"The 12 years of (the federal government's) nutritional neglect is something that I care very much about and I hope is now over," Haas said. "I also want to bring the USDA's focus onto healthy and safe eating."

For the past 11 years, Haas has headed Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, which she founded in 1982. The group has been active on a variety of fronts, but Haas is probably best known as a driving force behind efforts to improve federal seafood inspection programs.

More relevant to her nomination, however, is that Public Voice has produced several reports on the inadequacy of the nation's school lunch program.

The most recent study, published in September, concluded that USDA was responsible for the high fat and high cholesterol foods currently being fed to school children. The report called on USDA to increase its purchases of produce, reduce fat and sodium content in foods served, and eliminate the requirement that only whole milk be given to students. Haas will now be in the unique position of getting to implement some of the recommendations she and her colleagues authored.

In addition to school lunch and food stamps, Haas will also oversee the Women, Infants and Childrens Progam, the Office of Consumer Affairs and the Human Nutrition Information Service. It is estimated that the budget for the five agencies reporting to Haas represents about half of the USDA's total annual expenditure of $60 billion.

Haas, a former president of the Consumer Federation of America, was praised by both industry representatives and consumer advocates alike.

"We have found Ellen to be reasonable, open and understanding of--not only consumer needs--but also those of industry," said Roger Coleman, vice president of the National Food Processors Assn. in Washington. "She is willing to listen."

Another leading consumer advocate, Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the selection of Haas was "absolutely wonderful."

"For years, Ellen has been concerned about providing good nutrition information to the public and with improving school food programs," Jacobson said. "Now she will be in a position to make national policy on those very issues. She has a tremendous opportunity now to improve public health and USDA can play a major role."

Jodie Silverman, press secretary for Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), said that Haas is a "different kind of consumer advocate" who tries not to alienate any particular segment in food policy debates.

"Ellen never dug her heels in and refused to speak to another side on a particular issue," said Silverman, who previously worked as communications director for Public Voice.

Early in the Clinton Administration it was thought that Haas would also be placed in charge of the USDA's various inspection services--including the beleaguered meat and poultry program--in addition to the feeding programs. However, objections from the poultry industry about Haas' strong food safety positions are believed to have derailed placing both the inspection and feeding programs under her supervision.

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