Merrigan tapped for No. 2 USDA post

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Kathleen Merrigan, a professor who helped develop U.S. organic food labeling rules, has been chosen for the Agriculture Department’s No. 2 job by President Barack Obama, the White House said on Monday.

Merrigan, tapped for deputy secretary of agriculture, was head of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service from 1999-2001 during the Clinton presidency and helped to develop the USDA’s rules on what can be sold as organic food.

As a Senate aide, she worked on the 1990 law that recognized organic farming.

“Sustainable and organic farmers are excited ... that someone who has been associated with these issues her whole career is going to be at that level in the department,” said Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

Hoefner encouraged the Senate to confirm Merrigan, an assistant professor at Tufts University. The deputy agriculture secretary usually oversees day-to-day USDA operations.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was confirmed on Jan 20.

Senator Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said Merrigan brings “sound policy background to the job” from her previous experience at the USDA.

“She has demonstrated a commitment to the needs of agriculture and rural communities, promoting sound conservation and the benefits of healthy foods and good nutrition,” he said.

Merrigan, who went to work at Tufts in Boston after serving at the USDA, has worked at the Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture and as a consultant for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization from 1994-99.

She worked on the Senate Agriculture Committee from 1987-92. She has a doctoral degree in environmental planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Earlier this month, Vilsack said he submitted several suggestions to the White House to fill slots at the USDA.

Reporting by Charles Abbott; Editing by John O’Callaghan