|Food Safety and Inspection
United States Department of Agriculture
Washington, D.C. 20250-3700
Remarks prepared for delivery by Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Elsa A. Murano, at the National Meat Association’s Annual Conference, San Antonio, TX, February 12, 2004.
(Slide 1) Good afternoon. It is wonderful to be here at NMA’s annual convention. When Rosemary asked me to speak, and then mentioned where you were holding your meeting, I was doubly grateful to be able to join all of you! San Antonio brings to mind more than enjoying the Riverwalk or getting a great margarita. It was about this time last year your industry held a ground breaking summit here on E. coli – an unprecedented gathering of competitors, all dedicated to addressing a common challenge -and it is in this spirit of innovation and cooperation that I speak to you today.
As a professor and scientist, every new semester I would take the time to review my research, reflect on what had been successful and outline the areas that still need to be addressed, either in my classroom or in the laboratory. Our lives are so busy that it is difficult to take a step back and examine the "big picture." Yet this is vital to ensure that we evolve, not just exist.
In Washington, people talk about their inspiring view of the Capitol or the monuments, and the sights that inspire them to work harder and better. The view in my office is quite awesome; humbling and challenging all at once. (Slide 2) Yes, I am referring to a famous portrait of Louis Pasteur, examining a spinal cord sample. He disagreed with the popular attitude of the day, "science for science’s sake"; he felt this did not properly serve the people of the 19th century. He believed that science should have practical applications that could be used to improve the lives of others.
As we start our "spring term" at USDA, I am proud to highlight several areas, where together, we have used science to improve public health. I also will share with you where we are heading this year.
(Slide 3) First though, I want to touch briefly on the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) issue. For over a month now, BSE has been "front and center" with us, as it has with everyone who has concerns about public health, food safety, or their livelihoods in this industry. The recent measures that the Agency has taken to further prevent BSE demonstrate how committed the Bush Administration and the Department of Agriculture are to protecting public health and improving our food safety system through sound, science-based measures.
And the Administration is backing up this talk with action. In his budget for 2005 released last week, President Bush has requested a 61 million dollar increase from FSIS’ 2004 budget. Included in this is 3 million for the Agency to conduct monitoring and surveillance of regulations for specified risk materials (SRM) and advanced meat recovery (AMR).
(Slide 4) The four BSE regulations issued last month and listed on this slide are aggressive and advanced. We are quite confident that these measures will further enhance our efforts to prevent BSE from entering the U.S. food supply.
(Slide 5) The American public remains confident in the U.S. meat supply – and with good reason. Organizations such as NMA have taken a key role in tackling the BSE challenge, building on their reputation as leaders in the area of food safety. I want to take a minute to thank all of you for your cooperation and collaboration in those first few days as we recalled the beef connected to the positive BSE finding. The coordination between all parties, including NMA members, was a key factor in getting the word out.
Working together has been critical in addressing the BSE challenge. This is absolutely what we need to improve public health – greater cooperation, communication, and coordination over the safety and wholesomeness of meat products. Through USDA’s actions and industry’s commitment to produce safe products, consumer confidence in the safety of our food supply has not wavered.
The level of confidence remains strong, in part, because of the significant advancements that we have made in 2003. One of these has been the dramatic decline in pathogen levels, leading to a dramatic decline in the number of meat and poultry product recalls during 2003. (Slide 6) As we see here on the following slides, the number of Class I recalls has nearly been cut in half from the total of the previous year (2002). (Slide 7) This is an indicator that our scientifically-based policies and programs are working – and you (industry) are making a difference to ensure that the American public receives the safest food possible.
(Slide 8) One reason for the decrease in recalls is because of the "test and hold" practice many of your companies have adopted. While it may require an additional step in your processes, I believe we can reduce these numbers even further, and keep consumer confidence high, if every company would hold FSIS-tested product until the laboratory results are in. This is smart public health and smart business.
Other indicators of our success last year include reductions of pathogens in meat and poultry. (Slide 9) For instance, we issued regulations (last June) for establishments producing ready-to-eat products where Listeria monocytogenes is a concern. 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.
(Slide 10) Our measures to further prevent E. coli O157:H7 contamination of ground beef have also yielded similar decreases in the levels of this pathogen. To date, FSIS’ scientifically trained personnel have conducted the first-ever comprehensive audits of fifteen hundred and fifty beef establishments’ HACCP plans. Sixty two percent of those plants made major improvements based on these reassessments, and sixty percent added E. coli O157:H 7 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 definite improvement – and the strongest signal that science can drive down the threat from pathogens!
(Slide 11) And for Salmonella, we issued new procedures for detecting this pathogen. Instead of waiting for three cycles of tests, the discovery of a second salmonella positive now triggers a review of an establishment’s HAACP plan. Due to this process 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. As we look closer on this graph, we see that out of 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.
You have probably heard me say that we have the safest food supply in the world. The results I have just reviewed underscore this statement. (Slide 12) Further, when you compare the rates of salmonellosis cases per 100,000 people, the US has the lowest rates. (I’d would like to add a side note here: in countries where the food safety activities have been reorganized into a single agency, specifically Canada and Denmark, both saw a significant spike in their salmonellosis cases at that time. Brings to mind the old adage that you don’t fix what isn’t broken!)
The data for these three pathogens validate our scientific approach to improving public health through safer food. These results also demonstrate your commitment to food safety and I commend you for all of your efforts.
However, there is always room for improvement – and this is where we need to identify our challenges for 2004 and determine ways to overcome them. (Slide 13) Louis Pasteur said "in the realm of science, luck is only granted to those who are prepared." Food safety is too important to be left to guess work or luck; we must be prepared to identify and meet challenges head on.
This is not a challenge you need to take on singularly. You need to challenge others to take a responsibility for improving food safety and public health. Hold your suppliers accountable for providing the cleanest raw product possible. If you are vertically integrated then examine ways in which you can apply HACCP-oriented principles in husbandry. Reexamine your processing lines and make sure that your critical control points are scientifically verifiable and are being verified day in and day out.
It is critical that every segment of the farm-to-table chain be held accountable for providing the safest product possible to the next segment of the chain. The principles of HACCP are the standard accepted throughout the world…a standard that we know works. HACCP is the most scientifically advanced process for food safety worldwide and it gives us the assurance that potential hazards are controlled and eliminated from the food production cycle.
(Slide 14) USDA’s FSIS, too, is holding itself accountable for improving public health. When I first joined USDA over two years ago, I established five goals, a roadmap of improvements for our food safety mission. If you attended NMA’s annual convention last year, you heard about them:
Through reflection and refinement, we have outlined specific initiatives to make sure we fulfill those goals, thereby improving health outcomes for American families. These initiatives were outlined in our food safety vision document, Ensuring Public Health: a Vision for the Future. (If you haven’t received a copy yet, it is available on our web site, and we have copies here in the back of the room.) This detailed plan will continue to drive our policies and actions during this calendar year.
(Slide 15) This vision is not just words on paper. We are committed to seeing this vision through and our budget request for 2005 reflects this. In addition to budget increases in key program areas that I will mention later, we have requested an additional 9.5 million to further support our efforts to protect the food supply from intentional contamination. Food security has been part of FSIS’s mission every day for almost a hundred years and FSIS leads the efforts for USDA on bio-security. These funds will increase our prevention efforts in bio-security with the addition of 37 new positions and funding to test for additional threat agents. 2.5 million has been earmarked for upgrading laboratory facilities and an additional 2 million to train our inspectors specifically on bio-security issues.
(Slide 16) Training has been at the top of our priority list since I joined the Department and it is the first initiative we outlined in our vision paper. In April 2003, FSIS inaugurated new Food Safety Regulatory Essentials (FSRE) training, which is designed to better equip inspection personnel in verifying an establishment’s HACCP food safety system. All trainees received training in the fundamentals of inspection, covering the Rules of Practice, Sanitation Performance Standards, and Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures (SSOP). Customized food safety training is then provided based on the types of products being produced at the establishments where inspectors are assigned. As of the end of last fiscal year, 861 individuals have completed this customized job training regime. Our goal for FY04 is to train 2,500. We have currently completed 12 classes with 415 people trained.
For the 2005 fiscal year we have requested over a 50 percent increase in the FSIS training budget. $4 million of the requested 7.1 million will be used to increase the number of entry level inspectors receiving formal classroom training from 20 percent to 100 percent. Under this proposal, all new inspectors will receive formal training on how to identify and respond to food safety problems. Very importantly, new employees will be required to demonstrate mastery of training in order to be certified to assume inspection duties. An additional $3.1 million has been requested to supplement training for current on and off line field employees to improve their knowledge of the science of Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point system, enforcement of all regulations, and food safety sampling. These frontline employees are responsible for the making the critical decisions in concluding whether products are safe to eat; thus it is essential to have a scientifically and technically trained workforce.
(Slide 17) Our second initiative is furthering the use of innovative food safety technologies. I believe that we must encourage the use of safe and effective interventions, and do we all we can to ensure that we facilitate the process.
One way we can do this is by hosting public meetings. Last month in Omaha, Nebraska, we met to discuss the development and use of new food safety technologies to enhance public health. The dialogue and ideas generated at that meeting were also very helpful in exploring how plants can utilize new technologies in their operations.
Many of you are aware of the establishment of our New Technology Office in August 2003. This group is tasked with expediting the implementation of safe interventions at slaughter and processing establishments.
Our New Technology staff is an experienced team of 12 veteran FSIS employees, people who serve as the single portal for all new technology submissions. We designed this group to better manage the new technology process and allow for implementation as quickly as possible. They are also making sure that all FSIS personnel are aware of new technologies and where they are being used.
To increase the pool of new technology submissions, we have developed a New Technology web page where parties may submit their information on-line. We also have established an e-mail address, FSISTechnology@fsis.usda.gov, for interested groups to learn more about how to have their products or ideas considered. I am happy to report that we have received over 30 proposals for new food safety technologies since we have streamlined the submission process.
We are also working closely with our sister agencies, such as FDA, to implement effective, validated technologies. The addition of lactoferrin to our tool box of food protection methods last year is a good example of how this can work. We must not let bureaucratic red tape stymie the introduction of new technologies. Food safety advances can’t languish at the bottom of an overfilled "in" box.
Your leadership can help us in this effort. As new technologies are developed, they must be validated. Publication alone is not enough to show safety and success. While FSIS will encourage and support new technologies, you must follow through on your end as well. Correct validation is expected and indeed required, as our Agency will audit the results.
(Slide 18) Our third initiative is risk assessment coordination. In order to better focus its resources in food safety risk assessment activities, FSIS established a risk assessment coordination team with USDA-wide membership. The need for such a committee is growing as risk assessment becomes more and more important as a means of providing the science behind policy decisions. This group will promote scientifically sound risk assessments and foster research to support risk assessments.
Microbial risk assessment is still in its infancy compared to chemical risk assessments, so the need to share ideas and resources is even more critical. In November 2003, we started this interactive process – of sharing ideas and resources – by holding a public meeting to discuss current government thinking and activities regarding how the three components of the risk analysis framework (risk assessment, risk management, and risk communication) are used to inform and implement risk management decisions.
(Slide 19) This was a very productive meeting, and we examined several crucial factors including how:
We are considering initiating risk assessments on salmonella in raw beef and poultry and on the risk of Listeria monocytogenes in packaged deli meat compared to that sliced at the retail level. With these we will be able to access current practices and evaluate effective interventions. This will be a historic opportunity to further public heath by outlining ways we can, together, make meat and poultry products even safer. I hope I can count on your help.
(Slide 20) Our next initiative is developing a solid research agenda. In November, FSIS and the Research, Education and Economics mission area, or REE as we call it, announced a unified research agenda to coordinate USDA food safety research priorities and needs. Research is very important for FSIS to achieve its public health vision. However, FSIS does not conduct research itself, but it does have a role in identifying its own research needs so that the research community can meet those needs. The challenge for the future will be, like Dr. Pasteur sought do to, transfer research results to practical use. There are five broad categories where we need to focus. I ask your input in providing us with ideas on specific projects that should be pursued.
(Slide 21) The fifth initiative is to develop a list of best practices for animal production. In consultation with producers, researchers, and other stakeholders, FSIS is developing a list of best management practices for animal production in order to provide guidance in reducing pathogen loads before slaughter. I know you also discussed this at your E. coli summit here last year.
Last September, we arranged a symposium to discuss ways to significantly reduce the levels of E. coli O157:H7 in live animals before slaughter. We understand that preventing the spread of E. coli and other pathogens on the farm is vital to increasing food safety and protecting public health.
The dialogue that was generated from that meeting was very beneficial toward our development of guidelines outlining best management practices at the pre-harvest stage, which we expect to publish this year. Once these guidelines are developed, you can expect to see an aggressive outreach effort by FSIS to distribute these to producers. Guidelines have also been put together by the industry, and we welcome your input so that our combined efforts results in materials that will truly help producers do their part to improve food safety.
(Slide 22) Another key initiative is to conduct baseline studies. This is an absolute priority. FSIS is developing protocols to conduct continuous baseline studies to determine the nationwide prevalence and levels of various pathogenic microorganisms in raw meat and poultry. First, this information will help us, and you, to better understand the effect that interventions are having on these organisms. Second, since the new baseline studies will take into account regional variation, seasonality and other critical factors, they can help us focus our efforts where and when they are the most critical.
Third, the continual nature of the baseline studies will provide both information on national trends as well as a tool to assess performance of initiatives designed to reduce the prevalence of pathogens in meat and poultry products. Fourth, these baseline studies will also provide important data for conducting risk assessments, that can outline steps we can take in reducing foodborne illness.
I want to take a minute to thank Chairman Henry Bonilla of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee for his leadership in keeping food safety funding a part of the Omnibus Bill that was passed by Congress earlier this month. With these resources, FSIS can now begin these very important baseline studies.
(Slide 23) The emergence of previously unrecognized pathogens, as well as new trends in food distribution and consumption, highlights our need for new strategies to reduce the health risks associated with pathogenic microorganisms in meat, poultry and egg products. Through analysis and discussions with stakeholders, we have identified three issues that need to be addressed to attain the next level of public health protection.
(Slide 24) The first issue is to anticipate/predict risk through enhanced data integration. To better anticipate risks involving meat and poultry products, we must have the best available data to clearly identify the extent and nature of these risks, so that we may determine an effective response. These data consist of regulatory samples, as well as samples collected by food processing establishments. Thus, there is a need to improve analysis of food safety data from all reliable sources. I have charged FSIS with developing a system of data analysis that can be used in trend forecasting. We need to do the same with the data that industry collects. This is an area where the assistance of groups such as NMA is extremely important, and I hope I can count on your support.
(Slide 25) The second issue is the improved application of risk into regulatory and enforcement activities. Food safety problems need to be documented as they occur, so that conditions may be analyzed, and if need be, corrected. A better understanding of the prevalence and types of food safety failures could allow better assessment of how to best address them. Data regarding the causes of food safety violations, either within a specific establishment, or within a class of establishments, can be utilized in order to better focus our attention where the risks are greatest. In addition, it can provide us a tool to determine enforcement trends by district and by circuit, which supervisors can use to determine whether enforcement actions are being consistently applied.
(Slide 26) To develop a relative, real-time measure of how well an establishment controls the biological, chemical, and physical hazards inherent in its operations, FSIS is exploring the development of a Hazards Control Coefficient (HCC). (Slide 27) Such a model would help the Agency better focus its activities across this country’s more than 6,000 meat and poultry establishments based on risk, thereby maximizing food safety and public health protection.
(Slide 28) Finally, the third issue is better association of program outcomes to public health surveillance data. We have seen notable advances in preventing foodborne illness, which CDC has attributed in part to the implementation of HACCP. However, there still is a need to determine how specific policies affect public health. In order to accomplish this, data that links foodborne illness outbreaks with specific foods needs to be obtained and documented. It may then be linked with prevalence data of specific pathogens in specific foods. However, to complete the linkage with public health outcomes, a strong connection with human health surveillance data is needed.
Accomplishing this task will help to point regulatory efforts toward focusing its inspection and enforcement on those practices where risk is deemed to be highest, resulting in a more efficient use of government resources. Toward this goal, FSIS is working with CDC’s National Center for Infectious Diseases to design and support studies that enable definite connections to be made between occurrence of specific pathogens in specific foods and the occurrence of human foodborne illness.
We are strengthening relationships with state health departments to include attribution data in epidemiological investigations. We are also examining establishing a joint task force with CDC to determine ways to improve data collection by Food Net.
We intend to continue to engage the scientific community, public health experts and all interested parties in an effort to identify science-based solutions with public health outcomes. It is our intention to pursue such a course of action this year, in as a transparent and inclusive manner as possible. The resulting strategies should help USDA continue to pursue its goals and achieve its mission of reducing foodborne illness.
As we all know, protecting public health by ensuring safe and wholesome food is not accomplished through one isolated action or through just one organization. We are all in this together. We need to challenge ourselves, challenge each other, and above all hold ourselves accountable for improving food safety. Our livelihoods, and the lives of many others, rely on our continued cooperation. All of us have to look at ourselves as public health stewards and never rest in our mission in making the food supply even safer.
At times it may seem overwhelming to overcome the challenges we face. However, Dr. Pasteur faced even greater hurdles and went on to initiate profound improvements for people of the world, such as vaccines, the germ theory and of course, the scientific basis for fermentation, wine-making, and the brewing of beer. I know that by working together, and keeping the big picture of public health in mind, we can succeed.
It has been a pleasure to be here with you today. I thank you for your dedication and efforts, and I look forward to your continued contributions in food safety. Now, I believe we have time for a few questions. (Slide 29)
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