|Food Safety and Inspection
United States Department of Agriculture
Washington, D.C. 20250-3700
Remarks prepared for Dr. Elsa Murano for delivery at the California School Food Service Association’s Annual Meeting in San Diego, CA., on April 2, 2004.
Good Morning. It is a pleasure to join you here in beautiful San Diego for your annual meeting.
I don’t usually get to say this: But this week is actually one time of year when I miss being in Washington, D.C. The city is magnificent right now as the cherry blossoms are at their peak, ringing the tidal basin and the Jefferson Memorial with the most amazing arrays of pink and white. It is truly a magical time and I urge those of you who have never experienced the cherry blossom festival to make the trip one year.I recognize California and, in particular, places like San Diego are in blossom most of the year but singularly spectacular events can be appreciated by everyone and the cherry blossoms are a wonderful sight to see.
I noticed the theme of this year’s conference is Nutri-Challenge. Well, I don’t think there has been a time when your association, and your colleagues across the country, have had a greater challenge than today with all the dietary complexities and issues we face in school food service.
I can distinctly remember the food from my high school cafeteria and it is a far cry from what you serve in almost every respect. When I was in Miami Coral Park High School, we were offered one entrée per day. Period. Now it is amazing to see the a la carte selections being served in many schools and the creativity needed to encourage students to eat nutritionally and wholesomely.
I will go on the record to say that there was one thing, in particular, that I loved at the Miami Coral cafeteria: The meatloaf. It was great. We never had to worry about foodborne illness when we ate it since our cafeteria ladies cooked it to death – they were mostly Cuban, you see, and we don’t do medium rare!
Another thing I appreciate now about my high school’s food service was the challenge the cafeteria staff had in feeding a student body that was evenly divided between Cuban and Jewish children. Talk about a schizophrenic culinary challenge! But they were up to the task just as many of you do every day when you face the rich, cultural diversity presented by California’s school children.I think, as a country, we are culturally enriched by what we learn of others through their national cuisines. Learning about the foods of another ethnic or racial group is a process that brings us closer in an educational setting devoid of pre-conceptions and misunderstandings. I mention this only as a way of saying that maybe much more is being transformed in school food service settings then the nourishment of young children.
I am here today, however, not to discuss sociology but another issue of vital national importance: food safety. As USDA’s Under Secretary for Food Safety, I am responsible for the administration of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), one of the largest agencies of its kind in the world.
We are responsible for ensuring the safety and wholesomeness of meat, poultry and processed egg products, or basically the key food groups for those on the Atkins diet!
FSIS has 7,600 employees stationed throughout the country in more than 6,000 slaughter and processing plants each and every day they are in operation as well as at import stations on our borders.
As I have preached since my very first moment at USDA, we are dedicated to protecting public health through a scientifically-based inspection program. The old sniff-and-poke days are long gone. Since the 1998 inception of the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point, or HACCP, requirement for every plant, we have dramatically transformed how meat, poultry and processed egg products are produced in this country. (Many of you may also operate under HACCP plans in your facilities and I encourage that kind of scientific approach and commitment, especially considering the key audience you serve, our children.)
I think a brief description of FSIS’ responsibilities will bring home the enormity of the task we face and the reason why science is the only foundation upon which we can successfully operate.
FSIS-regulated products account for more than $120 billion in annual sales, or about 40% of all U.S. consumer spending on food. To break it down even further, FSIS officials each year 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 33 countries that we have approved for export to the U.S., based on having inspection systems equivalent to our own.Even with a workforce the size of ours’, the FSIS mission can only be accomplished -- and the safety of the public ensured -- by employing and implementing the best science available. This means incorporating state-of-the-art technology throughout the farm-to-table chain, whether it be on the ranch, the slaughter line, the processing plants, the laboratory facilities, in transit, at retail or in the home. It extends directly to our headquarters staff as well, who must constantly evaluate and determine when and how we need to modernize the regulations and rules under which we operate and respond rapidly and effectively when change is in order.
There certainly were some advantages that the food service personnel had back at my old alma mater that you don’t have the luxury of today. For instance, when we were served a single entrée each day there were pretty straight-forward rules for how to maintain food safety: Keep it simple and keep it hot.
With the more elaborate food service diversity that you provide today also comes greater food safety concerns and responsibilities. A varied menu, while pleasing to the eye and the palette, can create a host of food safety challenges.
At FSIS, we take our food safety responsibilities extremely seriously so a great deal of attention is also focused on the safety of the foods served in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). As you know, our sister agency, FNS administers NSLP, and the commodities we regulate play a major role in the menu items served. Another USDA agency, the Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS) acts as the purchasing agent for the foods that become federal commodities.
FSIS works with FNS and AMS to ensure that schools receive safe and wholesome food. However, despite our best efforts, there are occasions when we discover problems, such as microbial contamination, which necessitate that the implicated product be recalled and returned from commerce.
I believe that communication and cooperation by USDA agencies regarding food safety in the NSLP is better than ever. For instance, when any recall, or one that involves the general public, is necessary then AMS and FNS routinely receive all press releases and the more formal Recall Notification Reports issued by FSIS. Our sister agencies know each and every one of our food safety activities when they occur.
More specifically to your daily lives, however, is if NSLP product is involved in the recall, then FSIS immediately contacts FNS and AMS to participate every step of the way in meetings where the scope, depth and urgency of the recall are discussed. Jointly, we work on a course of action and implement it as soon as possible. This cross-agency cooperation is essential if we are to properly serve the American people and protect public health efficiently and effectively.As a result of our ongoing efforts, both within FSIS and with our sister Agencies we have seen significant progress on reducing the number of recalls. In fact, the number of Class I recalls, those that pose the greatest public health risk, was nearly cut in half in 2003 from the total of the previous year. This is an indicator that our scientifically-based policies and programs are working, which I will explain in more detail in a moment.
Now that I’ve told you a little bit about who we are and what we do, I’d like to take a few moments to discuss the ever-changing environment in which we are constantly challenged.
In the contemporary history of food safety, one particular incident stands out and serves as a benchmark for much of what has transpired since. I’m sure you all remember the outbreak of illnesses due to E. coli O157:H7 in early 1993, the so-called Jack-in-the-Box episode.
There is no way to minimize this tremendously pivotal moment when the issue of food safety became front and center on the national agenda. The loss of four lives and hundreds of illness because of contaminated, under-cooked ground beef shook the food regulatory agencies to their foundation.
The victims and the rest of the nation demanded action from the government. From this tragic incident, came the implementation of HACCP and substantial federal testing for E. coli O157:H7 in raw ground beef, in light of it being classified as an adulterant in the aftermath of the Jack-in-the-Box outbreak.
I equate the government’s response to this event as the first chapter in contemporary food safety history. USDA and, more specifically, FSIS have not been the same thereafter.
The succeeding years were spent developing and implementing HACCP throughout the country’s meat and poultry industries. It was a Herculean task that required companies of all sizes to develop a scientific approach to producing safe food. Imagine a complex, and sometimes alien, system landing on top of decades-old traditional production. The development and arrival of HACCP created confusion, conflict and inconsistent application. It all came to a head in 2002, when we experienced two additional crises.
Now I want to preface my remarks by saying we have lived with product recalls for many years and some of the largest predate my time at USDA. However, as I will explain in a moment, we are now much better prepared to handle not only the recall itself but the aftermath as well. Our skill in determining what went wrong, and why, has improved dramatically. In some cases we made advancements because of trial by fire and in others because we have a greater understanding of the science that is the foundation of a safe food supply. There has been a cycle of multimillion pound recalls even after implementation of HACCP. Our challenge was to break that cycle, and as our 2003 data on recalls shows, we have done just that!
Now I’d like to review the historic events of 2002. The first which crystallized our resolve to take food safety to the next level. It was an outbreak of illness due to E. coli O157:H7 linked to ground beef produced at what was then the Con Agra plant in Greeley, CO. Several dozen people became infected and there was also a fatality. As a result, we instituted one of the largest recalls in the Agency’s history.
Our investigation of the plant revealed that, while we may have formally launched HACCP four years earlier, there were serious deficiencies in how it was being implemented in the field. I won’t go into the fine points but I can say with confidence that we responded quickly as an agency requiring companies to reassess their HACCP plants and also instituted mandatory testing for the presence of E. coli O157:H7, where previously some plants had been exempt. More importantly, we began our first ever comprehensive audits of the reassessments carried out by industry, utilizing teams of experts in HACCP, our new type of inspector called Consumer Safety Officers.
In a sense, we went from implementing HACCP to enforcing it by letting industry know that the time for familiarization was over and that they were being held accountable for getting it right in their plants just as we were being held accountable by the White House and Congress to protect public health.
As they say, when it rains, it pours. On the heels of the Con Agra recall, we were faced with an epidemiological mystery. Several states in the Northeastern U.S. were reporting clusters of Listeria monocytogenes infections, with a unique serotype. There were no obvious clues as to the source. The illnesses quickly surpassed 80 with several fatalities including still births, one of the signatures of Listeria monocytogenes.
We launched an unprecedented investigation in close collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hundreds of laboratory tests were taken of suspect product. Ultimately, after countless hours of investigative work, we discovered the unique Listeria monocytogenes serotype on a work surface in a Philadelphia-area plant that produced ready-to-eat turkey. Another record recall was launched.
Shortly thereafter, the unique serotype was discovered in the product from a South Jersey manufacturer, who also produced ready-to-eat turkey. Again, yet another large recall of implicated product was announced. It was suspected that some of the recalled product also made it into the school lunch program and that added to the stress of solving the outbreak.
Our investigation into the outbreak also led to serious concerns that some companies producing ready-to-eat meat and poultry products were not paying credible attention to how their HACCP plans were working. We launched several initiatives to address the shortcomings evident in ready-to-eat meat and poultry items, including expanded testing for Listeria monocytogenes, requiring companies to pay strict attention to the conditions of the plant environment which can change dramatically with just routine construction and mandating that companies share their testing data with FSIS personnel.
Our efforts on both fronts, E. coli O157:H7 and Listeria monocytogenes, have paid great dividends. Overall indicators indicated a continuing drop in the presence of pathogens in meat and poultry. Then, late last year, we released data that showed a one-year, 25 percent drop in the percentage of positive Listeria monocytogenes samples from the year before, and a 70 percent decline compared with years prior to the implementation of HACCP.
The news is equally impressive in our work with E. coli O157:H7. To date, the audits conducted by our scientifically trained personnel of fifteen hundred and fifty beef establishments reveal that sixty two percent of those plants have made major improvements based on these reassessments, with sixty percent having now included E. coli O157:H7 as a pathogen likely to occur. As a result, we are seeing a significant drop in the number of E. coli O157:H7 positive samples in ground beef. In 2003, of the E. coli O157:H7 samples collected and analyzed, 0.31 percent tested positive, compared to 0.78 percent in 2002 – or a 60% reduction. This is a dramatic improvement, and evidence that adequate implementation of HACCP, coupled with oversight by a well-trained, 21st century team of experts does work!
While there were no major 2003 events for Salmonella equaling what happened with Listeria monocytogenes and E. coli O157:H7, we made great progress here too, having issued new procedures for controlling this pathogen. Due to these rather complicated processes and other science-based initiatives, the rate of Salmonella in raw meat and poultry has dropped by 66% over the past six years and by 16% compared with 2002. In fact, the number of random samples collected and analyzed by FSIS between January 1 and October 31, 2003, 3.6 percent tested positive for Salmonella, as compared with 4.29 percent in 2002; and 10.65 percent in 1998.
Taken together, these declines are strongest signal that science can drive down the threat from pathogens!My focus on HACCP is not just techno-jargon. We now know, according to the CDC, that since its inception, HACCP is in great measure responsible for the declines in Salmonella, Listeria and E. coli illness since 1998. There is tangible evidence that it works. We now have a keen focus on making sure industry’s HACCP plans are solidly ground on science, and effective in order for the declines in food-borne illness to continue.
As you can see, we are not the same Agency as we were before the Con Agra and Listeria monocytogenes outbreaks of 2002. We are more effective, comprehensive and responsive than we were during the painful episodes of that year. All of which brings me to BSE, or mad cow, and its discovery in a dairy cow from Washington state on December 23, 2003.
This saga will always be known at USDA as the "mad cow that stole Christmas," because our dedicated employees worked round the clock and gave up their holidays and time with family to deal with this international crisis. As a result of our experiences in 2002, we were battle hardened to confront the BSE discovery. There is no way to minimize the fact that, handled in the wrong way, our first BSE case could have crippled consumer confidence in the food supply and been a disaster for the beef industry.
Instead, our rapid response, including publishing new rules within a matter of days of the discovery, a true Washington record, staunched the potential damage. Yes, we still are dealing with some of our international trading partners who continue to ban U.S. beef, but we were able to maintain consumer confidence, protect the public health, and save American agriculture from one of its worse crisis.On a personal note, I would like to make the point that despite the saturation of media coverage of mad cow in this country, at the time we do not know of a single case of its human equivalent linked to consumption of American beef.
So, my recommendation to you is to focus on the nuts and bolts of food safety in order to serve your clients, California’s children, as best as possible. The hard work that goes into making food safe on a daily basis in schools across America is not going to make headlines or the evening news. However, you serve a vital role in maintaining the well-being of our future.
At USDA and, at FSIS in particular, we appreciate the important work you do and I personally thank you. Together we can all better protect public health if we aspire to the highest standards in safety and wholesomeness and hold our colleagues in the system to the same requirements.
I appreciate you being such a kind audience and I look forward to attending the rest of Nutri-Challenge.
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