|Remarks by Under Secretary
for Food Safety Dr. Richard Raymond at FSIS’ public meeting,
Shiga Toxin-Producing E. coli: Addressing the Challenges, Moving
Forward With Solutions
Remarks prepared for delivery by Under Secretary for Food
Safety Dr. Richard Raymond at FSIS’ public meeting, Shiga
Toxin-Producing E. coli: Addressing the Challenges, Moving
Forward With Solutions, in Washington, DC on April 9, 2008.
Good morning everyone. Thank you for coming out today. Given
the short notice you had after we were finally able to get the
registration page up on our Web site, I’m really impressed with
the packed house we have here today – and with the many folks
participating by phone.
I’m glad to see so many of our partners from the whole food
safety spectrum here with us during the next day and a half –
folks we’ve been working with for the past few years to improve
food safety in the United States, by working in an open and
transparent fashion to improve communication and collaboration
in efforts such as the highly successful Salmonella initiative,
risk-based inspection, attribution, and non-O157 STECs.
Since I’ve been at USDA, I’ve always said that we must tear
down old walls and silos that prevent us from working together
toward achieving our common food safety objectives. This
approach toward addressing challenges will continue to be a
major priority of mine in my final year here. It’s labor
intensive, but it’s a labor of love.
This meeting is a perfect example of just such an approach with
our challenge of getting shiga toxin producing E. coli
out of the ground beef most of us in this country love to eat.
Our Long-Term Progress
Over the long haul, we’ve made some tremendous progress
in controlling E. coli O157:H7. Between 2002 and 2006,
as you know, FSIS testing shows the percentage of samples
testing positive for E. coli O157:H7 declined by 80
percent. Maybe not the best indicator of prevalence, but
certainly an indicator of trends and increasing industry control
of this bug – until recently.
The Agency’s E. coli O157:H7 initiatives and
industry’s collective response in 2002 helped drive the rates of
positive samples down in 2002, 2003 and 2004 – and these rates
remained at 0.17 percent for 2005 and 2006. But in 2007, the
rate increased to 0.23 percent. To put that percentage into
perspective, out of 12,000 samples taken in 2007, only 27 – a
miniscule amount – were positive for E. coli O157:H7.
So, we improved in the long run, but unfortunately we plateaued
for three years and slipped a little lately.
But the bottom line isn’t product testing – it’s human illness,
and the numbers rose in 2005, from a low in 2004, and then
higher yet in 2006. Foodborne illness data from 2007 are
officially due out this Friday in the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly
Report. I hope it isn’t further bad news, but we only have
to look at the trends in illness and product testing to know
it’s time for bold steps to be taken.
Last year, we also experienced an increase in the number of
recalls related to E. coli O157:H7 – 21 recalls, with
10 due to reported illnesses.
But to put this in perspective, from 2002 to 2006, the number of
recalls of ground beef due to E. coli O157:H7 had
decreased significantly. This was not through chance or luck,
but rather through our collective efforts and commitment to
control this pathogen and lower the risk of foodborne illness to
consumers. Here’s the breakout:
I don’t think anyone has become complacent in the last year
or two. What may have changed is the ecology of the bug, or the
prevalence of the bug, or the concentrations of the bug on hides
or in the gut of the herd. We don’t yet know what has caused the
disconcerting upward trends in recalls, positive samples, and
human illnesses. And until we do, so we can attack the problem
at the pre-harvest stage, we must do everything possible to
reverse the trends and protect public health. That is our
collective responsibility and we must take it on together.
- 2002 – 21 recalls, 2 with reported illness
- 2003 – 12 recalls, 5 with reported illness
- 2004 – 6 recalls, 3 with reported illness
- 2005 – 5 recalls, 4 with reported illness
- 2006 – 8 recalls, none illness-associated
- 2007 – 21 recalls, 10 with reported illness
We did take a number of steps last year to address the increase
in positive samples and recalls associated with the pathogen,
which you’ll hear about today, but these might be considered
nibbling around the edges of the problem with policies that are
Here’s the Bottom Line – Get E. coli O157:H7 out of
These were good changes, but now we need bolder, stronger
initiatives. The bottom line is, I simply want harmful E.
coli out of ground beef – and you all do too, or you
wouldn’t be here or on the phone today.
How we’re going to achieve that objective relies on how much
we’re willing to work together during this meeting and at the
meetings that will definitely follow. What you see on the agenda
is not the same old thing. We’re going to be discussing things
that may make some of you uncomfortable. They probably already
have based on media reports. But the media isn’t where the
problem will be solved. It’s at the collective table with
everyone’s sleeves rolled up and ready to work collaboratively.
That discomfort is something I want people here today to
experience. You certainly may hear things you don’t agree with.
That’s expected, but I want you to engage in constructive
dialogue to tear down the walls that can divide us simply
because we don’t see “eye to eye” on certain issues. Progress
won’t occur if we let the walls stand or build them up even
higher. Progress won’t occur if we’re just wanting to avoid
discomfort by maintaining the old status quo – the E. coli
bug is obviously not satisfied with the status quo and neither
should we be.
We know this isn’t going to be easy, but we all share a common
goal and we need everyone’s input here to move forward with
viable, PRACTICAL solutions. In 2006, the U.S. imported 3.8 billion pounds of meat and poultry.
This is about 6 to 8 percent of domestic meat consumption every
year. I can say without hesitating that my health is dependent
on the actions of everyone here today.
In keeping with the goals and practices of this Administration
and the Food Safety and Inspection Service to be open and
transparent in our deliberations, today we are announcing that
we are seeking a dialogue regarding our next steps with E.
coli. Because of the highly infectious nature of E.
coli, even when present in small amounts, we not only
cannot rely on it being cooked out of ground beef, but we also
cannot count on it not cross-contaminating other food products
as has been demonstrated to do over and over again.
We need to discuss what your community – whether you’re a
producer, processor, consumer, academic, or public official – is
going to do on this problem…not just pointing the finger and
claiming what the other community should do. I read the comments
on the Web, saying “tell them to just cook it,” or pointing the
finger at feed lots, line speeds, and corporate bottom lines.
These are old, worn out phrases…finger pointing that will not
protect the vulnerable populations. They need your help – I hope
you’re up to the task.
Yes, the E. coli O157:H7-related outbreaks last year
made us all unhappy, which is why I want to tackle this problem
head on, take a big bite – not a nibble, a big bite – out of
this problem by moving forward with some measured, practical,
proposed, I stress proposed, solutions. We will review the
responses from the 30-day comment period that will follow this
meeting and plan the next steps based on the input we receive.
I don’t have a lot of time left in my position, and the
challenges with E. coli O157:H7 are not something I
want to ignore. And I don’t want to leave this problem for the
next under secretary, and I don’t want to have a prolonged,
fruitless deliberation on this subject. We have a problem;
people are getting sick. Let’s work quickly and thoughtfully to
find the right prescription to solve it. With that said, let’s
get started and have a productive meeting.
April 9, 2008