|Food Safety and Inspection
United States Department of Agriculture
Washington, D.C. 20250-3700
Remarks prepared for delivery by Dr. Elsa Murano, Under Secretary for Food Safety, before the Association of Contingency Planners forum titled “Best Practices in Business Continuity: A Global Perspective from the Nation’s Capital” co-sponsored by the USDA Grad School, October 29, 2003, Washington, DC.
Good morning and welcome to Washington! It is a pleasure to be here with you today. I must say, that as professionals who specialize in handling and preparing for various types of crises, you certainly picked a good time to come to DC. You missed Hurricane Isabel and arrived, hopefully, well before any “historic” blizzards happen again this year!
I know you have several sessions today on how federal Agencies plan for worst-case scenarios, so I will focus my remarks this morning specifically on food security and how FSIS—the Food Safety and Inspection Service—the agency I oversee at the US Department of Agriculture, protects the safety of the meat, poultry and processed egg supply.
FSIS has jurisdiction over meat, poultry and processed egg products produced in, or exported to, the U.S. These products account for more than $120 billion in sales, or one-third of all U.S. consumer spending on food. FSIS has more than 7,600 inspectors in slaughter and processing plants and at import facilities nationwide. Laboratory support is provided by three regulatory laboratories and a fourth laboratory that focuses largely on microbial outbreaks.
For many years, FSIS has had a well functioning food safety infrastructure in place to protect the public from the unintentional contamination of food. In addition to this infrastructure, FSIS has science-based policies in place. The Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system, implemented in meat and poultry plants nationwide, is designed to prevent and control contamination of the food supply during processing. This is the case whether the contamination is naturally occurring or introduced intentionally. And FSIS is continually evaluating, and updating when necessary, policies addressing specific food hazards to focus on those of greatest concern to public health.
Over the past two years, or since “9/11,” FSIS has broadened its focus to address intentional, as well as unintentional, contamination. The infrastructure we already had in place has served as a strong foundation on which to build. Today, I would like to tell you exactly how we have built on that foundation.
First, let me describe how we work within the broader Homeland Security framework. FSIS and USDA work closely with the White House and the Department of Homeland Security to coordinate our food security efforts.
As you know, the Department of Homeland Security, headed by Secretary Tom Ridge, is the lead department for the nation’s homeland security efforts. The White House Homeland Security Council provides presidential oversight for homeland security across the government.
The White House Homeland Security Council recognized the need for a more coordinated approach to food security matters and assembled under its aegis the White House Interagency Food Working Group. The charge of this group is to develop an interagency strategy to protect the food supply and minimize it as a target for terrorist activity. The IFWG—as we refer to it—has representation from the White House and 12 Federal agencies, including FSIS. I will talk in just a few moments about two projects that are being conducted through the IFWG—vulnerability assessments and the Food Emergency Response Network (FERN).
Within FSIS, a full-time staff has been established whose sole responsibility is food security—the Office of Food Security and Emergency Preparedness (OFSEP). OFSEP works in concert with these other entities I just mentioned to ensure that activities are coordinated and resources are used efficiently.
With our existing food safety framework already in place, and this new homeland security network developed, resources have been mobilized towards a number of concrete goals. Let me review for you what has been accomplished so far at FSIS.
Let me begin with laboratory improvements. I mentioned earlier that we have four laboratories—three regulatory laboratories and a fourth laboratory that focuses on microbial outbreaks.
First, we have increased security at each of these laboratories. This includes instituting procedures to ensure proper chain of custody and other controls on all samples and materials received by the labs. The labs participate in the Electronic Laboratory Exchange Network (eLEXNET), which is a system designed to provide a secure network in which food safety labs at various levels of government can share food sample and test data.
Second, we have expanded laboratory capabilities. Our four labs have expanded capability to test for approximately 12 non-traditional microbial, chemical and radiological threat agents. And FSIS has started construction on a Biosecurity, Level-3 laboratory that will be able to conduct analyses on a larger range of potential bioterrorism agents.
Third, we are integrating food testing and support laboratories into a network—called FERN—that can respond to national emergencies, including terrorist threats that might affect the food supply. FERN stands for Food Emergency Response Network, and it is being developed by a working group under the White House Interagency Food Working Group.
FERN was formed in 2002 and currently has about 61 members, including FSIS, FDA, and state labs. Participation is open to government labs that are capable of conducting food testing and forensic analysis for a wide variety of chemical, biological and radiological agents.
And fourth, all of our laboratories have received ISO accreditation—the gold standard in laboratory accreditation.
Let me turn to inspection improvements for both domestic and imported products. Each year FSIS officials inspect 39 million cattle and calves, 97 million hogs, 3.5 million sheep and lambs, and eight billion poultry and fowl. Our officials also are responsible for inspecting 3.2 billion pounds of liquid egg products. In addition, we inspect 3.8 billion pounds of imported meat, poultry and processed egg products from those countries with which we have determined have inspection systems equivalent to our own.
Our entire workforce is being trained with a program that focuses on preventing terrorist activities, rather than responding to an event after the fact. Training emphasizes a multidimensional team approach that includes the federal, state, local and private sectors.
We have also issued to our inspectors directives that describe what actions are to be taken when the Department of Homeland Security raises the threat level to orange or red. And earlier this year during Operation Liberty Shield, instructions were provided to field staff to replace certain inspection tasks that were not related to food safety with targeted inspection and sampling for a dozen or so biological, chemical or radiological agents. Since then, we continue to randomly test for the agents on an ongoing basis.
For imported products, FSIS has established a new position called an import surveillance liaison inspector. The inspectors augment the current activities of traditional import inspectors at 146 locations. The import surveillance liaison inspectors conduct a broader range of surveillance activities, and they coordinate with other agencies, such as the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the Food and Drug Administration, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection within the Department of Homeland Security. Currently, 20 of these new inspectors are on board, and we anticipate more will be added.
Strengthening our borders is important, but efforts must also go back to originating countries. Our goal is to work to the extent possible with our trading partners to encourage them to implement security measures. Fortunately, FSIS already has an extensive system in place to determine if foreign countries and individual plants are equivalent to the U.S. system before they are approved to export to us. This means we have extensive contact with officials in exporting countries, which gives us the opportunity to discuss biosecurity issues.
Another area where we have made food security improvements is in assessing vulnerabilities from the farm to the table. FSIS has completed a vulnerability assessment for domestic products to determine the most vulnerable products, likely agents, and potential sites for deliberate contamination. A similar assessment is being conducted for imported products.
Through this initial vulnerability assessment, we identified four commodities as being high-risk. Then, a working group created under the IFWG I mentioned earlier, conducted a detailed vulnerability assessment on these four products using a Department of Defense targeting method called CARVER + Shock. It is an offensive technique in that it identifies physical locations an enemy might find advantageous to introduce contaminants by evaluating the target through the enemy’s eyes.
These assessments are powerful risk management tools that can be used to develop strategies and policies that reduce or eliminate the potential risk at vulnerable points along the farm-to-table continuum. Once you identify where a target may be, we can develop shields, or counter measures, to address the vulnerabilities identified.
In the area of surveillance, we have established a Consumer Complaint Monitoring System—a national surveillance system that monitors and tracks food-related consumer complaints. It is a powerful tool that serves as a sentinel system for terrorist attacks on the food supply.
A number of improvements have been made to the system to make it even more effective. For example, an electronic database is used to record, triage and track complaints. Complaints can also be entered at our field offices and accessed at headquarters, which allows more real-time response.
FSIS also has conducted tabletop training exercises to familiarize staff and managers with their responsibilities in the event of an intentional attack on the food supply. USDA contracted with ANSER Corporation to conduct a mission-area analysis for homeland security. As a result of that contract, three major exercises were conducted.
The first, Crimson Sky, involved the entire Department of Agriculture as well as principles from a dozen or so other Federal departments. The second, Crimson Guard, was conducted for the Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service and simulated an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.
The third, conducted in January 2003 for FSIS, was “Crimson Winter.” It simulated an attack on the food supply and involved numerous Federal and State agencies. Non-government representatives were allowed to observe.
In addition to these exercises, we have participated in other simulations carried out by us, as well as by other agencies such as FDA. We have gained valuable experience through these drills and we are applying this learning into our contingency plans.
Encouraging industry food security programs is another of our strategies. We have issued two publications that provide guidance to the industry on steps they can take to tighten plant security. Since many of these establishments are small businesses, which may not have the resources larger plants do to implement such systems, both publications are offered in five languages—English, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean.
The first publication, Food Security Guidelines for Food Processors, targets slaughter and processing plants. The second, just issued in August, is Safety and Security Guidelines for the Transportation and Distribution of Meat, Poultry and Egg Products. These voluntary guidelines are designed to help facilities and shippers that process or transport meat, poultry and egg products.
Another way we are reaching out to stakeholders and consumers is by exhibiting at meetings around the country and participating in conferences such as this one. September 11, 2001, showed that none of us are “safe” and that we are all affected when terrorism reaches our shores. By working together, and sharing our knowledge with groups around the country, we hope to prevent not only food related incidents, but to contribute to the overall safety of Americans. We have also met, and are meeting with private sector members as we work on our vulnerability assessments. Their input provides us with invaluable information that enhances the accuracy and detail of these assessments.
In closing, the events of “9/11” exposed many of our vulnerabilities, as a government and as a people. Fortunately, we haven’t yet experienced an attack on the food supply, but we must accept the fact that such an attack is plausible.
I am proud of the actions we have taken so far to ensure the security of the nation’s meat, poultry and egg supply--we have taken important steps in addressing our vulnerabilities. There will be always be more we can do, and we will continue our efforts in the months and years to come.
Thank you for inviting me here today. Now, I believe we have time for a few questions…
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For Further Information:
FSIS Congressional and Public Affairs Staff
Phone: (202) 720-3897
Fax: (202) 720-5704