|Food Safety and Inspection
United States Department of Agriculture
Washington, D.C. 20250-3700
Office of the Under Secretary for
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Remarks prepared for delivery by Dr. Catherine Woteki, Under Secretary for Food Safety, before the Food Industry Conference, hosted by Penn State University, Grantville, PA., March 31, 1999.
It's a pleasure to be here today to talk about integrating resources to improve food safety. The fact that you are holding this conference on strengthening partnerships shows that you have already gotten the message of how important it is for all of usgovernment, industry, academia, and consumersto work together to improve food safety.
Over the past several years, I believe we have made a lot of progress in establishing a framework that has been used, and will continue to be used, to make significant improvements in food safety. By a framework, I mean that we have identified distinct areas where we know progress is needed. This framework was presented in its entirety to the public in May 1997 as the President's Food Safety Initiative. In that document, seven key areas were outlined: foodborne disease surveillance, outbreak response, risk assessment, research, inspections, education, and strategic planning. While progress in some of these areas has been more rapid than in others, all are essential to our goal of reducing the incidence of foodborne illness.
We knew, when this framework was developed, that identifying areas where progress is needed was only the beginning. It would take a lot of work, and good coordination, among the various public and private organizations responsible for food safety. Now that the framework is in place, and we know what to do, I believe we are seeing an increasing focus on how we are going to get the job done. By "we," I mean the collective we. How are we going to integrate resources to improve food safety? Specifically, how are the Federal agencies responsible for food safety going to work together? How can Federal agencies work most effectively with State and local governments? How can government best work with industry, academia, and others involved in food safety? These are questions we need to answer.
These questions are particularly timely because of recent questions raised about whether Federal food safety activities are organized in a manner that promotes the greatest progress. On August 20, 1998, the National Academy of Sciences released its report, "Ensuring Safe Food from Production to Consumption." This study was begun last year at the request of Congress to determine the scientific and organizational needs of an effective Federal food safety system.
Shortly afterward, on August 25, President Clinton created his Food Safety Council, which he charged with developing a comprehensive strategic plan for Federal food safety activities and ensuring that Federal agencies develop coordinated food safety budgets each year. One of the Council's first jobs was to review the Academy's study, solicit public input, and report back to the President with recommendations on appropriate actions to improve food safety. The response, which was released on March 15, supports all of the goals contained in the Academy's recommendations to strengthen the food safety system.
The Council responded to each of the recommendations in the Academy's report with the following specific assessments.
Recommendation 1 was that the food safety system should be based on science. The Council agreed and provided numerous examples of where this is already the case, including the development and implementation of the FoodNet and PulseNet systems for surveillance and identification of foodborne pathogens, and the implementation of new science-based inspections of meat, poultry, and seafood. The Council has identified areas that should be strengthened, such as improving the ability to assess health risks from pathogens in food.
Recommendation 2 was that Federal statutes should be based on scientifically supportable risks to public health. The Council agrees and will call on Congress to work with it to create scientifically-based statutes to promote food safety. The Council will conduct a thorough review of existing statutes and determine what can be accomplished with existing regulatory flexibility and what improvements will require statutory changes.
Recommendation 3 was that a comprehensive national food safety plan should be developed. The development of such a plan is already underway and is one of the primary functions of the Council. One component of the plan will be exploring methods to assess the comparative health risks of the nations food supply.
Recommendation 4 was that a new statute should be enacted that establishes a unified framework for food safety programs with a single official having control over all Federal food safety resources. The Council supports the goal of a unified framework for food safety programs and will conduct an assessment of structural models and other mechanisms to strengthen the Federal food safety system through better coordination, planning and resource allocation.
Recommendation 5 was that agencies should work more effectively with partners in state and local governments. The Council agrees that the roles of state, tribal, and local governments in the food safety system are critical and that their efforts deserve the formal recognition that partnership in a national food safety system conveys.
Id like to talk in more detail about this last recommendation, because it emphasizes that a national food safety system must involve State and local governments as well. Our goal is the integration of Federal, State, and local government activities toward a common food safety goal. But what exactly does this mean?
First, I believe it means acknowledging that the Federal, State, and local governments have distinct roles when it comes to food safety. For example, the Federal government, I believe, should take the lead, with academia, in the identification of food hazards through risk assessment. It also should be responsible for establishing food safety standards that can then be applied jointly by Federal and State programs. And the Federal government should take the lead in encouraging national and international uniformity in food safety standards in order to maintain consumer confidence in the safety of food, regardless of whether it was produced under a State, Federal, or foreign inspection program.
The States, on the other hand, have the lead regulatory role over the retail food sector, with support from FDA, USDA, and others. This is an increasingly important area of public concern, as we find the distinction between retail and inspected establishments blurring, with many retail operations now carrying out the same processing operations. We also recognize the States primary role in animal production food safety. The States already have networks in place to address this segment of the farm-to-table chain.
Integrating Federal, State, and local resources also means sharing information. New scientific developments mean that more data are being generated on foodborne illness and on the prevalence of pathogens in foods. We also have valuable information from research carried out by both the public and private sector. We need to share this information on a regular basis.
At the Federal level, FSIS and FDA recently signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to facilitate the exchange of information at the field level about food establishments under shared jurisdiction. The MOU establishes procedures for notifying each other in the event one agency discovers contaminated foods that are an imminent health hazard, for example, or when either of us takes an enforcement action. Its a small step, but it is an example of the direction in which we are headed.
Another way we are sharing information is through a series of training sessions for State and local food inspection officials on the potential health risks associated with meat and poultry products processed at the retail level and in food service operations. We are working with the Association of Food and Drug Officials on this important initiative.
Integrating resources at the Federal, State and local levels also means working collaboratively on projects involving food safety. As a result of the President's Food Safety Initiative, we have seen a number of collaborative projects at the Federal and State level already.
For example, we have the Foodborne Outbreak Response Coordinating GroupFORCEGthe intergovernmental group of Federal and State agencies formed to improve responses to interstate outbreaks of foodborne illness. The FoodNet active surveillance network for foodborne disease also involves all levels of government.
USDA strongly believes that in order to integrate resources, the Federal government must do what it can to strengthen our State partnerships, and I believe our commitment is quite evident.
In the area of inspection, we have provided extensive technical assistance to more than 2,800 small plants to help them meet the requirements of the Pathogen Reduction and HACCP rule. We are now beginning an assistance program for very small plants, which must implement the requirements by January 2000. I want to take a moment to thank Penn State for its assistance in helping us with this initiatives. Penn State is one of several universities that have volunteered to implement HACCP in its meat and poultry pilot plant so that very small plants can see HACCP in action.
Under the FY2000 budget request for FSIS, further progress can be made in strengthening State partnerships. For example, under the Food Safety Initiative, $2.4 million is earmarked to help the States comply with the Pathogen Reduction and HACCP requirements, which is a major prerequisite for permitting the interstate shipment of State-inspected products. And $0.5 million is earmarked to improve emergency response coordination with the States in investigating foodborne disease outbreaks. During FY2000, FSIS also intends to continue its assistance to the States to help them automate their systems. And FSIS is seeking cooperative agreement authority, which would allow it to enter into partnerships with organizations such as State and Federal government agencies, academia, and industry. Currently, FSIS must work through other Federal agencies to enter into cooperative agreements, and must pay additional costs for this service.
Since 1995, USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services have together held several meetings to explore how Federal, State, and local agencies can to arrive at a national, seamless food safety system, and we can expect such meetings to continue. Just last month, FSIS hosted a National Food Safety Conference for senior food safety officials in each State. Out of these meetings, a National Integrated Food Safety System Project, involving Federal, State and local officials, has been established, and we expect to see good ideas to emerge from this effort.
I dont want to leave the private sector out of this discussion, because public-private partnerships are critical to meeting our food safety goals. The President's Food Safety Initiative places a heavy emphasis on public and private partnerships, and we are seeing progress on this front as well.
The Fight BAC! campaign, the result of the public-private Partnership for Food Safety Education, is spreading the word to consumers about taking basic sanitation and food handling steps to protect themselves from foodborne illness. And the education of food handlers in food service operations and at the retail level is being addressed by the Food Safety Training and Education Alliancewhich includes representatives from industry and consumer groups, trade associations, and government agencies.
Research is another area where the private sector plays an important role. We need a strong research base so that we have the best science on which to base policy decisions. We also need research to develop interventions that can be used farm-to-table to improve food safety.
The Federal government plays a large role in supporting food safety research, and in July 1998, President Clinton announced the creation of the Joint Institute for Food Safety Research. The Institute is charged with developing a strategic plan for conducting food safety research and coordinating all Federal food safety researchincluding research conducted with the private sector and academia.
The private sectors involvement in improving the research base is critical, and fortunately, we are seeing positive developments. There are a growing number of public-private partnerships, such as the Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (JIFSAN), which is a collaborative activity of FDA and the University of Maryland, and the Illinois Institute of Technologys Moffet Center in Chicago, which is partially supported by the food industry. And USDAs Agricultural Research Service has, for more than a decade, used Cooperative Research and Development Agreements, under which USDA scientists develop a technology, and a private company receives the licensing rights. This arrangement was used to create PREEMPTa product that significantly reduces Salmonella contamination in chickens. And we are seeing industry take the initiative to fund research on its own. The National Cattlemens Beef Association, for example, recently announced its commitment to implementing a $40 million research plan to further pathogen reduction.
Food safety has emerged in recent years as a major area of consumer concern and a major area of congressional concern. Widespread media reports of massive contaminated food product recalls and of foodborne illness outbreaks perhaps have contributed to a public perception that the nations food supply may be less safe today than it was only a few decades ago.
On one hand, that perception is not altogether accurate. While we may be reading and hearing more about contaminated products and about people who get sick from eating those products, we should not conclude that todays food marketplace poses a significantly greater risk to public health. In a world of high technology and rapid, mass communications, we simply are more readily able in the 1990s to identify links between contaminated products and foodborne illnesses and quickly alert consumers, largely through mass media. I believe the U.S. food supply remains one of the safest, if not the safest, in the world.
On the other hand, we have plenty of reasons to remain highly conscious of food supply threats. Todays food production and delivery system is vastly different from yesterday's. Food comes from all over the world. It is produced in mass quantities and often-shipped great distances in relatively short times. Food is sold and prepared and cooked in a variety of ways and under a variety of circumstances. In a more fast-paced world, Americans rely more than ever before on food that can be quickly obtained, prepared, and eaten. Add emerging new pathogens and persistent old ones to the changing consumption habits of todays American, and you have a food supply that is not unsafe, but that is vulnerable.
As Under Secretary for the USDA agency that oversees inspection of the nations meat and poultry and egg products, I am encouraged by our progress in preventing contaminated food products from reaching the marketplace. Our science-based and prevention-oriented inspection system called Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) Systems is being implemented in processing plants across the country over a three-year period that began in January 1998. Results from phase one indicate it is helping to reduce product contamination and foodborne illnesses.
The Presidents Food Safety Initiative, which is proposed for its third consecutive funding year in FY 2000, also has contributed to a safer food supply by providing funding for food safety research and education, foodborne illness surveillance and coordination, inspection, and other activities critical to public health. We are making great progress in the war on unsafe food.
In the past, we have been fortunate to have bipartisan support for our food safety initiatives and appropriate levels of funding to maintain our skilled inspection workforce . By law, our workforce must oversee the slaughter and processing of meat and poultry products and the processing of egg products and verify that industry is meeting its food safety responsibilities. It is essential that the levels of funding proposed by the President be maintained for our inspection force to do its job of protecting the domestic and international meat and poultry supply. Unfortunately, there is some concern that proposals for across the board cuts could diminish our ability to provide that important inspection. Such a cut would have a devastating effect on the safety of those products we inspect.
As I mentioned, food safety enjoys strong bipartisan support, and it is not my intent here to evaluate competing budgets except when it comes to food safety and public health.
In closing, the importance of integrating our resources and working in a coordinated fashion is without question.
Despite the fact that we focus on different commodities and address different parts of the farm-to-table chain, food safety is a common goal that ties us together.
I look forward to working with you as we make further progress on creating a seamless, national food safety system and on making the food supply as safe as it can possibly be.
For Further Information:
FSIS Congressional and Public Affairs Staff
Phone: (202) 720-3897
Fax: (202) 720-5704
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