Ann Veneman (searchheads an agency that doesn't frequently make the front pages of the nation's newspapers nor lead the nightly television newscasts. But the daughter of a California peach farmer has been thrust onto the national scene with the apparent discovery of the first case of mad cow disease in the United States.

Veneman, 54, is the first woman to head the U.S. Agriculture Department (search).

Known for her expertise in foreign trade, Veneman also worked at the department in the first Bush administration, where she rose to deputy secretary and was the highest-ranking woman to serve in the department.

At the time, Veneman was credited with helping to negotiate the Uruguay round talks for the General Agreement of Tariffs and Trade (search) -- which set forth sweeping cuts in duties on imports, reductions in farm subsidies, and opened trade in services like banking.

She later was tapped by former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson to be California's agriculture secretary from 1995 to 1999. Veneman, who is also an attorney, went into private practice after Wilson left office.

Having grown up on a peach farm in Stanislaus County in the San Joaquin Valley south of Sacramento, Veneman has close ties to agriculture. She also is no stranger to politics.

Her father, John Veneman, was a popular former Republican state legislator and undersecretary of health, education and welfare in the Nixon administration.

Veneman's nomination by President Bush to head the Agriculture Department caused concern in the Midwest, where farmers and congressional lawmakers worried that an attorney from California might not help their region -- the heart of U.S. agriculture production.

Veneman stirred controversy earlier this year when her aides refused to allow reporters to interview industry leaders and foreign dignitaries visiting the department. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, was a leading critic, telling Veneman that she should let the media do their job.

Some of those who have worked with Veneman describe her as plain-spoken and forthright.

"She's very straightforward and honest. What you see is what you get," said Carol Tucker Foreman, director of food policy for the Consumer Federation of America (search).

Foreman, who was assistant secretary of USDA during the Carter administration, praised Veneman as "more concerned about public health, nutrition and consumer concerns than most Republican secretaries." But she said she'd like to see Veneman take stronger action on improving enforcement of meat inspection and other issues.

Veneman disclosed late last year that she had been diagnosed with an early form of breast cancer. With her doctors predicting a complete recovery, she underwent treatment that included a lumpectomy, followed by six weeks of radiation therapy. She has since been given a clean bill of health.