|Food Safety and Inspection
United States Department of Agriculture
Washington, D.C. 20250-3700
Remarks prepared for delivery by Dr. Merle Pierson, Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety, U.S. Department of Agriculture, before the ADFO Post-conference Laboratory Workshop, June 19, 2003, Chicago, IL
(Slide 1) Good morning. On behalf of USDA, I want to thank you for the opportunity to speak today. It’s good to see so many of you here at this important workshop. This is an unprecedented meeting representing 130 plus public health, veterinary diagnostic, agriculture and environmental laboratories. You are at the forefront of the critical issue of protecting the food supply. It is an important issue for all of us – we all have a major responsibility in ensuring a safe and wholesome food supply.
First, as a researcher and educator at Virginia Tech for 32 years and now, for a little over a year, as the Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety for the USDA, my entire professional career has been devoted to addressing food safety issues. (Slide 2) Undersecretary for Food Safety Dr. Elsa Murano and I share in the Bush Administration’s commitment to an efficient and effective food safety system that ensures the highest possible public health protection. I am truly honored to have the opportunity to serve in this way.
While you have no doubt heard of the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), and have likely worked with many of our laboratory employees, (Slide 3) did you know that FSIS regulates products that generate over $120 billion in sales annually and account for 1/3 of consumer spending on food? (Slide 4) FSIS has more than 7,600 inspectors and veterinarians in more than 6,000 meat, poultry, and egg product plants every day. Ours is an awesome responsibility, and one we take very seriously.
(Slide 5) Historically, the main focus of USDA FSIS was organoleptic inspection for the safety and wholesomeness of meat and poultry. However, as science advanced and new concepts of food safety management such as HACCP were developed, our focus shifted to prevention by and appropriate testing for foodborne pathogens and other foodborne hazards whether these were naturally occurring or intentionally introduced.
(Slide 6) The tragic events of September 11, 2001 brought to the forefront in many areas the reality of intentional threats to the well being of the American public; as we all know, one of these areas is our food supply. An attack on our nation’s food supply is, unfortunately, a real possibility and food security is vital to our national security. FSIS has thoroughly assessed its emergency preparedness plans in light of this new reality.
(Slide 7) FSIS has developed a plan for the Agency’s food security activities over the next five years, and our laboratories are a major part of this plan. Our goal is the same as it should be for all stakeholders in the farm to table continuum: to prevent the use of food as a terrorist weapon. The plan identifies what steps the Agency needs to take in order to meet that goal.
We realize that protecting our food supply from intentional attack is a large task that requires coordination with our government, industry, and public partners. To ensure the best possible communication and cooperation, FSIS works closely with the USDA Homeland Security staff, who in turn works with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the White House Homeland Security Staff.
FSIS is also partnering with State and local entities and our sister agencies that share our food security goals. FSIS works closely with the Food and Drug Administration on all food safety issues, such as irradiation, residue control, and the development of new research. FSIS and FDA are among the co-sponsors of the National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Foods (NACMCF) and, in 1999, FSIS and FDA signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that facilitates the sharing of information at the field level for operations that fall under joint FSIS-FDA jurisdiction. FSIS and FDA are also cooperating on issues of food security. Currently, we are working to develop new ways to share laboratory capabilities with FDA and we have worked together on exercises that simulate food security emergencies. We have also worked closely with FDA on our classified vulnerability and threat assessments of food.
Since the terrorist attacks on the United States, security – including food security – has been our highest priority, and it will continue to dominate FSIS’ top priority list for years to come. I would like to highlight just a few of the many initiatives we have designed and implemented for improving food security. Since most of you are here representing laboratories from across the country, I will start with what has been happening with the FSIS labs.
(Slide 8) FSIS has dedicated resources to be sure that our laboratories are secure and ready to assist in the event of a bioterrorist attack. Each of the FSIS laboratories is certified by the International Organization of Standardization, under ISO standard 17025. As you may know, ISO accreditation requires full documentation of each procedure in the laboratory and the standardization ensures that laboratory procedures are conducted consistently. In addition, FSIS has started construction on a Biosecurity, Level-3 laboratory, which will be able to conduct analyses on a larger range of potential bioterrorism agents. Security at each of FSIS’ four laboratories, i,e., three regulatory laboratories and the Microbial Outbreaks and Special Projects laboratory, has been upgraded and the laboratories are working to improve data sharing and communication with other laboratories.
FSIS also participates in the Electronic Laboratory Exchange Network, or eLEXNET. This internet-based system will be the mechanism by which the Food Emergency Response Network (FERN) laboratories report results from all bioterrorism or chemical terrorism related analyses. I am hopeful that this meeting can lead to further implementation of FERN.
FSIS also participates in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Laboratory Response Network which provides training, microbiological methods and critical re-agents to participants.
(Slide 9) In Fall of 2002, as a part of an FSIS reorganization, the Office of Food Security and Emergency Preparedness was created. This office is comprised of staff that works full-time on issues surrounding food security. The office serves as the central contact within FSIS that interfaces with USDA’s Homeland Security Staff. It also represents the FSIS Administrator and the Under Secretary for Food Safety on all matters related to food security and emergency preparedness.
The Office’s mission is to prevent, prepare for, and coordinate a response to intentional attacks or other major events threatening the U.S. food supply. The Office of Food Security and Emergency Preparedness incorporates the work of the FSIS Food Security Advisory Team (F-SAT) into its functions. Members of F-SAT, who represent the major program areas within FSIS, serve in an advisory role to the Office of Food Security and Emergency Preparedness. The office continues to coordinate its activities with the Interagency Food Working Group established by the White House, the Food Emergency Rapid Response and Evaluation Team (FERRET), the Protection of the Food Supply and Agricultural Production (PFSAP) subgroup of the USDA Homeland Security Office, and Continuity of Operations Planning (COOP). The creation of the FSIS office of Food Security and Emergency Preparedness signifies our heightened alert and awareness of threats that are all too real.
In March 2003, FSIS issued a directive to our field personnel describing actions that are to be taken when the Department of Homeland Security raises the Homeland Security Advisory System threat level to orange or red. The directive gives instructions on how personnel are to respond to new threat conditions and encourages cooperation with establishments to address concerns. Field employees use information provided by the Office of Food Security and Emergency Preparedness to alert plant officials and verify that food security procedures are being adhered to.
With the implementation of Operation Liberty Shield during the Iraq war the directive was implemented and some of normal non-food safety inspection tasks were temporarily replaced by inspection and sampling as given in the directive. It is important to point out that there was no intelligence indicating a specific threat to the food supply; this action was taken as a precaution due to the heightened security concerns during the war.
FSIS inspectors have been on heightened alert since the terrorist attacks in 2001. (Slide 10) To supplement the activities of our import inspectors, FSIS has created a new position: the import surveillance liaison inspector. As of March 2003, 20 of these inspectors have been conducting a broader range of surveillance activities than traditional import inspectors. They also work to improve coordination with other agencies, such as U.S. Customs and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), that share the responsibility of ensuring the safety of imported food products.
As we work to keep our employees up to date on all emerging threat information, we are also working to ensure that our employees and laboratories are prepared and well trained to handle crisis situations that may arise. FSIS has participated in table-top training exercises to familiarize staff and managers with their responsibilities in the event of an intentional attack. (Slide 11) Last winter, FSIS conducted ‘Crimson Winter,’ a simulation that involved numerous Federal, State, and local agencies that would be involved in responding to an attack on the food supply. In addition, FSIS has initiated food security training for all employees and an employee handbook that discusses potential threats to the food supply is being created.
I know that even before the events of September 11, 2001, many of you were already working on the idea of an integrated system that would allow laboratories locally and nationally to share vital information. The attacks of that September day have only intensified the need for such a system, and I want to thank you for your efforts.
(Slide 12) By partnering with the many stakeholders that share our commitment to food safety and security, including all of you here today, we can make even greater advances in protecting the safety of our nation’s food supply from all threats, intentional or unintentional. Thank you.
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For Further Information:
FSIS Congressional and Public Affairs Staff
Phone: (202) 720-3897
Fax: (202) 720-5704