Remarks prepared for delivery
by Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Elsa Murano, at the
Institute of Food Technologists annual meeting, July 14, 2004,
Las Vegas, Nevada.
Good afternoon everyone. It´s a great pleasure to be here
at IFT´s annual meeting. As a microbiologist, I certainly
appreciate the Institute of Food Technologists´ role in
exchanging knowledge on the science and technology of food.
Few consumers appreciate the amount of research and
development that many of you put in to process, preserve and
package the vast array of tasty, nutritious and above all -
safe - foods that they and others around the world enjoy
The fact that many of us take safe and convenient food for
granted is a testament to the effectiveness of applying sound
science and technology to food production. However, for many
populations around the world, having access to a safe and
abundant food supply is still a basic need that has not been
It is a fact that no society has ever flourished without these basic needs being met. It is also true that the abundance, wholesomeness, and safety of food are all characteristics that must be present simultaneously, for all three are equally important. I think we can all agree that a plentiful food supply is of little value if it is unsafe, or does not positively contribute to human health.
With the global food supply, we are interdependent on each other´s actions. Food trade has a tremendous impact on the health of populations. In the old days, foods were traded locally, and so if these foods were contaminated, the foodborne illness that developed remained a local problem as well. Now, the world is truly shrinking. Increasing international trade has meant that a greater variety of foods are available to the world´s population. This expanded reach in food distribution, which has resulted in improved nutrition, has also meant that a greater probability exists for unsafe food to reach a large population.
Importance of Codex
Because of this, food safety issues across the globe are
getting more attention, and this in turn has increased the
visibility and importance of the Codex Alimentarius
Commission the major international mechanism for promoting
the health of consumers through the establishment of food
safety standards. As you well know, the mission of Codex is
to develop these worldwide standards through the exchange of
scientific discussion by member countries. The success of
such discussion is fully dependent on overcoming several
obstacles facing many countries around the world. Today, I
would like to discuss these issues with you and lay out some
thoughts on the table for us to consider in order to make
Codex more effective.
But first, for those of you whom I am just meeting today,
let me give you a little background. As the Under Secretary
for Food Safety, I oversee the actions of the Food Safety and
Inspection Service, an agency within the USDA that includes
over 10,000 employees and regulates the safety of all meat,
poultry and processed egg products, produced domestically and
imported. The Agency inspects products that represent more
than one-third of all consumer spending on food here in the
US, and about 40% of all domestic food production. To carry
out meat and poultry inspection, as well as other food safety
activities, we work with all of our stakeholders including
industry and the public, to continue to find the best ways to
keep our food the safest in the world.
FSIS works extensively with other countries ensuring the
"equivalency" of foreign inspection programs and the safety
and security of imported meat and poultry. In addition, my
office is the home of the US Codex office.
This office (U.S. Codex office) operates with two committees, the Technical Committee, which recommends positions based on technical analysis of issues, and the Policy Committee, which evaluates these recommendations and develops the final U.S. government position on issues.
Active participation in Codex is essential to advancing food safety worldwide. The work of various Codex committees goes a long way in protecting the health of consumers by ensuring fair trade practices through promoting implementation of all food safety standards.
The Risk Principle
However, it takes more than just full participation to make
Codex effective in setting standards. These standards must be
based on assessing the risk inherent in foods. This "risk principle"
is the underlying principle that drives the
development of U.S. government strategies to improve food
safety and public health. Based on the risk principle, the
U.S. government argues that risk assessment based on
scientific evidence should guide the development of standards
within Codex. Strict standards reflective of a high risk
should not be established if in fact the scientific evidence
demonstrates the risk to be minimal or below acceptable
The Precautionary Principle (Or the Slot Machine
Unfortunately not all the representation from around the
world on Codex committees operates on the risk principle.
Many prefer to use a precautionary principle - letting
unscientific opinion influence the decision-making process
not only domestically but also internationally. I liken this
approach to playing the slot machines that we had to walk by
to get here. By doing so, we abandoned all notions of
probability and deposited our hard-earned money, as if to
expect to win the jackpot in spite of evidence to the
We simply cannot afford to gamble this way when it comes to
food safety. The costs are way too high when we pursue
policies with reckless abandonment of risk principles. Let´s
face it..in the science of food safety; we face very
formidable hazards to health like bacteria. With their long
history of survival and adaptability to changing
environments, it is a given that these harmful bacteria
cannot be completely eliminated in raw foods.
However, those who advocate the precautionary
principles against these organisms, do so as if to expect
that we can eliminate the risk by simply saying that we do
anything that will expose us to that risk, even if such
measures are truly ineffective and simply provide a veneer of
Challenges Faced Within Codex
Therein lies the crux of our challenge within Codex. We need
to ensure that all representatives serving within the
commission are using sound scientific principles as their
guide and not useful thinking or extreme and simplistic
notions of risk. Precautionary principles only stymie the
fair trade of safe foods by setting insurmountable standards,
which only serves to further exacerbate the problems of
millions suffering from malnourishment around the world.
Another challenge we see is that there is a wide disparity of representation within the commission. In order to improve food safety worldwide and for Codex to succeed as a truly international organization, we need to ensure that all voices are heard. Currently, the membership of Codex does not accurately reflect the world's population. Europe, which has 4% of the world´s population, comprises about a quarter of Codex membership. By contrast, the population of Latin America and the Caribbean is twice as much as Europe´s, yet they represent 19% of the Codex membership. Furthermore
- 20 of these members are the smaller countries in the Caribbean basin whose smaller human and financial resources can make it very difficult to be actively involved in the many Codex committee meetings.
The reasons for this disparity center around two issues. First, many countries simply cannot afford to send more than one representative, let alone one, to commission meetings. For example, the one-country one-vote formula for Codex is a disadvantage for the Americas if a significant number of the countries eligible to participate are unable to do so because of their lack of travel funds to send delegations to the many Codex meetings. Therefore, several countries in this predicament missed out on the recent 27th Session of the Commission in Geneva, Switzerland where issues such as country of origin labeling, labeling of foods derived from biotechnology, and antimicrobial resistance were discussed.
Second, many of these nations lack the knowledge and system to keep up with the Codex issues, hampering their meaningful participation in Codex. These officers sometimes feel isolated, with little support from their government, or from the food industry they regulate.
The Trifecta of Challenges
With this situation at hand, you see we have a long way to
go before we reach a "level" playing field in the
international community. This inequity must be righted. And
it must be righted not only for reasons of equality, but also
because here is where we can find support for science-based
Since we´re in Vegas, I´ll use another gambling analogy. Let me borrow a term from those betting on the races here in the Hilton and throw a
"trifecta" on the table of challenges for us to overcome these inequities. Unlike the gamblers who bet on the exact order of the top three horses finishing a race, the order of challenges in our trifecta does not matter since they are all equally important, and there is a lot more at stake with our
"race" to improve food safety.
The first test of this trifecta is to challenge the food
industry in nations across the globe to interact more with
each other and with the Codex offices in each nation.
Second, food scientists need to be actively engaged in Codex. This is where IFT can play an integral role in raising the profile and contributions of food scientists in the Commission. There is a significant amount of difficult work in explaining the science behind certain positions to partners around the world, and this is where your expertise is crucially needed. In addition, Codex needs to hear from the scientific community on many issues. Regrettably, the scientific community is mostly silent and acts more as an observer than a resource.
Third, we need science to prevail overall. As a microbiologist, I personally understand the need for food safety policy to be based on science, not politics masquerading as science. This has been the main focus for the Bush Administration's food safety policies and because of the successes we are seeing from our science-based initiatives, this approach will continue in the United States. In addressing Codex participation of developing nations, and the role of the scientific community, we can continue to ensure that Codex standards are science-based and don´t fall prey to notions of precaution.
These are the challenges that I´ve laid out on the table, and all bets are on that, if we work together to overcome them, this is a trifecta that can´t be beaten.
Initiatives to Overcome Challenges
What I´d like to share with you now are some measures that USDA has implemented to facilitate a closer working relationship with developing countries, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean. Then I´ll discuss a concept with you that could possibly open up solutions to the challenges and needs that I have just mentioned.
USDA is focused on a very aggressive outreach program to its international partners. We hold training courses for government officials who are responsible for the food safety systems in other nations so they can have a better understanding of USDA's public health regulatory system and its equivalence requirements. This government to government outreach is an invaluable
"two-way learning street" for all parties involved. USDA also sets up, or participates in, symposiums with industry in other nations. Two months ago, we set up a U.S. Poultry Health and Trade Symposium with our counterparts in Mexico City to explain in detail to Mexican industry the steps of our equivalence process.
The U.S. Codex office has also revamped its outreach efforts to developing countries, in order to help them understand the ramifications of various issues and the importance of their participation in Codex. The main goal of this effort is to enhance representation at Codex meetings of countries, who like the United States, also base their positions on risk assessment and scientific evidence.
We have also expanded our partnership efforts through other avenues. Last month, we signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Pan American Health Organization. This MOU will help promote greater participation of countries with small- and medium-sized economies in the international standard-setting processes; and increase the exposure between nations of scientists and government food safety officials.
The Virtual Institute
These are just some of the initiatives we have undertaken to facilitate greater cooperation and promote science-based principles with our international partners. Now, I'd like to address the concept that I mentioned earlier. This idea is supported by Latin American nations. The initiative is a virtual Institute of Food Safety for the Americas.
This virtual institute would serve as a channel for all nations in the Western Hemisphere to facilitate distance training on laboratory methods, equivalence, inspection, and foodborne illness investigations. Getting this institute off the ground would help meet the three fundamental needs of developing nations, which again are: 1) building stronger support of Codex offices in other nations; 2) raising industry´s awareness level; and 3) fulfilling the desperately needed training.
USDA currently does not have the appropriations to set up this virtual institute, but as I said, the concept is well received by Latin America. What I´m looking for from you is your feedback and ideas on how we can establish the institute to serve all the nations in the Western Hemisphere. For instance, recall the first challenge of the "trifecta" that I laid on the table
- this was to get more industry interaction across national borders. One way to achieve this would be for industry to come up with funding for courses and travel for the institute.
In addition to industry, we also need to look at academic institutions and government agencies in other nations as potential partners for contributing knowledge, funding and infrastructure. I believe building this virtual institute would be a gigantic step forward in bringing the nations of Latin American and the Caribbean as full participating members of Codex. Your ideas are also needed on this concept, especially on how we can overcome our challenges and meet the needs of many developing nations.
It is important that we ensure that all voices are heard at Codex; and continue our commitment to science-based policies and standards. We must work together to form a consistent, successful strategy of inclusiveness.
We have a historic opportunity to - not only do what is right
- but to do what is needed. We are at a critical juncture. There is a battle going on in the world of food safety. Science-based risk assessment
must win over simplistic notions of precaution. We must garner support for this viewpoint, both domestically and internationally, and I know that IFT can help get us there.
By working together for the benefit of all, I have no doubt we will succeed. Thank you for the opportunity to speak here today, and I'd like to welcome your comments and questions.