The fact that there remains no one in charge of food safety at the USDA has become a sick sort of joke among food policy types. It’s true that there is a second in command, Jerold Mande — but he’s a cancer doctor with no food safety background and, at best, a caretaker. He has no authority to make policy or initiate reform. Bill Marler’s Food News website has the latest on the search:

Though the administration continues to look for a candidate, a high-level USDA official downplayed the importance of having a Senate-confirmed under secretary, indicating that USDA leadership has confidence in the progress FSIS [Food Safety and Inspection Service] is making towards the President’s Food Safety Working Group recommendations…

Last June, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack cited conflict-of-interest concerns to explain the delay in selecting a nominee. Vilsack told the Government Executive that the administration “has had a hard time finding a candidate who has not engaged in lobbying…”

Lynn Silver, assistant commissioner of the New York City Health Department’s Bureau of Chronic Disease and Prevention, and Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest are rumored to be on top of the administration’s shortlist.

I’ve confirmed with my own sources that those two are indeed on the shortlist — and that’s definitely good news. Both would represent a major improvement over previous potential candidates for the job like meat industry-funded scientist Michael Osterholm or Pennsylvania’s (blessedly) former Ag Secretary Dennis “no rBST labeling!” Wolff. And yet, it’s all left me with an empty feeling. Not to needlessly cast aspersions on Smith DeWaal or Silver, but I have to say that if this is victory it may prove an empty one.

Word is that the real head of food safety right now is the FDA’s Food Safety Advisor Michael Taylor. He has been involved with Team Obama going back to the transition and is himself a former FSIS leader. He’s known among progressives more for his status as a former Monsanto executive than for his food safety reforms while FSIS head — though some have argued that he made real attempts in the past to improve safety at slaughterhouses. And his “shadow leadership” of national food safety might explain the reference in the Food News piece to the President’s Food Safety Working Group, which Taylor unofficially leads. While you can game out a scenario where the administration unofficially unifies food safety under one roof (as many advocates prefer) through the PFSWG with Taylor as its unofficial head, it may not be enough to ensure meaningful reform. The main indication we have of the Working Group’s intentions — its recent “Key Findings” report [PDF] — spent little time discussing changes to dangerous meat industry practices like high line speeds and low staffing levels and unionization rates or to inspection frequency and intensity. Instead it spent lots of time talking about general improvements to procedures and tracking.

But then, Congress has been surprisingly slow to act on food safety issues, too — there are only now indications that the Senate’s HELP Committee may hold a hearing on the subject later this month. All of this paralysis is probably due in part to the realization in Washington that Big Meat is indeed standing in the way of reform and will never be a true good-faith partner. Just think about the industry’s furious resistance to something as basic and common-sense as mandating testing of ground beef ingredients. How on earth will they accept the significant steps required to fix the problems. If the appearance by the head of the American Meat Institute Patrick Boyle on Larry King Live was any indication, they don’t even accept that there are any problems in the first place.

And there’s really no one in a position of power willing or interested in taking on the meat behemoths like Smithfield Foods, Tyson Foods, or JBS (which just got federal blessing to get even bigger). Fixing food safety necessarily involves moving in direct opposition to industry desires, not finding some middle ground that allows it to continue more or less with business as usual. So it’s no wonder that the administration is moving so slowly. In almost all areas, President Obama, for all his gifts, has shown a strong desire to avoid conflict at all costs and has shown no appetite for pointing a finger at adversaries. Rather, he continues, as psychologist and political consultant Drew Westen put it, to demonstrate a “steadfast refusal either to call out his opponents by name or to tell the story of how we got into any of the messes we’re in.” The administration appears to be searching for a path to success through industry collaboration. Collaboration has another meaning, of course — cooperating with the enemy. The Obama administration would, I think, do well to remember that.