Remarks prepared for delivery by Under Secretary for
Food Safety Dr. Elsa A. Murano before the American Society
of Plant Biologists´ Women in Plant Biology Committee meeting,
July 26, 2004, Orlando, Florida.
Good afternoon everyone. It is a wonderful being here for
your annual meeting. The American Society of Plant Biologists
is a wonderful organization and it is with great pleasure
that I am speaking in front of this committee. As a scientist,
I think it is imperative that such a committee exists with
the specific goal of enhancing the status of women scientists.
Let me give you a brief overview of my career in science.
It actually started right here in Florida, where I received
my B.S. degree in biological sciences from Florida International
University in Miami. From there I went to Virginia Polytechnic
Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Virginia to
receive my M.S. degree in anaerobic microbiology and a Ph.D.
in food science and technology. Before being sworn in as
Under Secretary for Food Safety, I was a tenured professor
at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, GO AGGIES!
As Under Secretary for Food Safety at the Department of Agriculture,
I oversee the Food Safety and Inspection Service, or FSIS,
which ensures the wholesomeness of meat, poultry and egg
To give you a little background about FSIS, the agency regulates
products that represent more than one-third of all consumer
spending on food. FSIS officials inspect 39 million cattle
and calves, 97 million hogs, 3.5 million sheep and lambs,
and eight billion poultry and fowl a year. 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 we have determined have inspection systems
equivalent to our own.
Our work force consists of over 7,600 men and women who are
in approximately 6,500 plants and import stations everyday.
This is an enormous task, as you can imagine. I have found
that the only way to achieve our mission of protecting public
health is to equip our inspectors with policies that are
based on science, and that way take the guesswork out of
Three Challenges to Getting Our Science-Based Work
To many of you, especially my fellow scientists, using science
to ensure safe food sounds like common sense. Well, that´s
because it is.
However, when I came to work in Washington, I quickly found
out that translating science into policy is like conducting
lab work in a non-sterile environment. There are three major
challenges to overcome in order to succeed and to get the
The first challenge is the multitude of hurdles that a large
bureaucracy brings to getting anything accomplished. In a
large organization, there are bound to be many written requirements
and procedures for getting tasks done, but then we have to
ask ourselves the question, “do these procedures really address
the science behind what is intended for the endgame?”
For example, let´s look at the simple task of turning on
the lights. Let´s say there is required written documentation
of when and how to turn on the lights in this room. You can
follow those procedures, plus then there will be verification
procedures in place for someone else to come by to make sure
that the lights are turned on correctly and at the right
time to provide visibility. So you see, there is all this
documentation to make sure that people can see in the room
by simply turning on the light switch at the correct time.
That is akin to the myriad of paperwork that bureaucracies
demand, and it can be overwhelming.
But what about making sure the electrical current is running?
How do we ensure that we can still get current to the room
in the event of a power outage from a backup power generator?
The electrical current is the real “science” behind the issue
of having a well lit room. In Washington, the bureaucracy
can impede flexibility and speed, creating a challenge for
those of us who must constantly work to find new ways to
fight foodborne hazards to protect public health.
The second challenge is politics. Now, let me make clear
that I fully support our open, transparent government process,
and hope that my native Cuba might also some day be able
to experience the wonders of democracy. In our system, all
voices have a right to be heard. And that means some voices
will disagree with what we do.
However, I am a firm believer in judging the method by the
results. Disagreements among various groups regarding how
best to achieve improvements in public health, are a daily
occurrence in Washington. Unfortunately all too often, politics
enters into it and folks who should be thrilled about our
accomplishments in reducing foodborne illness instead spend
their time trying to find the cloud and ignore the silver
lining. The key is to rely on science for policy-making,
and let the critics and those who disagree with the methods
we use due to their own biases judge us by our results.
The third challenge is the media. In our high-speed, fast-food
world, it is difficult for some to understand that successful
science is not an immediate gratification. We cannot simply
order the solutions as we would a combo meal. And as any
one who has spent long hours conducting research will attest
to, the day-to-day work of science rarely provides the type
of exciting footage the media likes to air during sweeps
weeks. Also, explaining the science behind our policies to
the public is not easy to do, especially in a sound bite.
In addition, we are all well attuned to the fact that the
media tends to air bad news instead of good because it´s
the “bad” that sells.
Given these three major challenges, you´re probably sitting
there wondering why any scientist would ever want to get
into a leadership position within the government. However,
I´ll tell you that despite the challenges I face, I´m extremely
thrilled to be serving the public. When I was selected for
this post by President Bush, I was honored to have the rare
opportunity to do something that could positively impact
so many people´s lives in terms of improving public health.
It is an awesome responsibility and one I take very seriously.
The decisions we make every day affect people, and it is
vastly different from the impact I could make on people´s
lives at academia.
However, I must tell you that coming from academia gave me
the tools I needed to tackle the challenges of policy-making.
Science is a great basic training. It teaches us a way of
thinking out methodical approaches to solving short- and
long-term challenges. The scientific method I used in the
lab helps me out in my government role. Borrowing the cliché,
it is my own little "method to this madness."
Applying the Scientific Method to USDA Policy
As you all know the scientific method includes the following
First step is to make an observation. The core problem identified
is the fact that foodborne illnesses are causing approximately
76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000
deaths in the United States each year and costing billions
of dollars in healthcare and lost productivity.
Next, one must develop a hypothesis on why this happens and
how it could be addressed. My hypothesis is that if I use
science as the basis for all decision- and policy-making,
then positive results will follow.
When I first joined USDA almost three years ago, I established
several goals, a roadmap of improvements for our food safety
mission. These goals are the procedures within the scientific
We then developed policies based on risk assessment for specific
pathogens in order to reduce their presence in meat and poultry
products. Recent indicators show that our approach has worked.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in
its annual report on the incidence of infections from foodborne
pathogens, noted significant declines from 1996 to 2003 in
illnesses caused by E. coli O157:H7 (42%), Salmonella
(17%), Campylobacter (28%) and Yersinia
As I´ve been stating, basing our policies on science has
been fundamental to this progress. But going down this road
wasn´t easy, because of the three challenges that surrounded
our environment. Let me give you a concrete example by telling
you how we worked to address the risk of foodborne illness
from Listeria monocytogenes.
Combating Listeria monocytogenes
Formulating Your Purpose
Consumption of foods contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes
has serious public health consequences to certain susceptible
groups of people. The illness occurs rarely (currently approximately
3.4 cases per million people annually), but when it does
occur, it can be life threatening.
We were faced with this challenge when we began a series
of initiatives aimed at reducing this pathogen in ready-to-eat
meat and poultry products. This strain of Listeria
survives and grows at refrigeration temperatures in many
food items including dairy products and deli meats. It can
be especially dangerous for certain at-risk populations including
pregnant women, infants, the elderly and those battling chronic
diseases. According to the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention (CDC), while the rate of listeriosis has fallen
by 40 percent in the past five years, Listeria monocytogenes
still accounts for almost 500 deaths each year.
Preliminary data on foodborne illnesses for the United States
in 2001 indicated that the incidence of infection from Listeria
monocytogenes had decreased between 1996 and 2001. However,
the level then reached a plateau, so it became evident that
additional targeted measures were needed. In addition, we
also knew that since the 1990s, there has been a major
Listeriosis outbreak in the U.S. every two to four
years, with the most recent taking place in the Fall of 2002.
We knew that breaking this all-too-familiar cycle was critical,
so we rolled up our sleeves and went to work.
First, we compiled a draft risk ranking of products, estimating
the potential level of exposure of three age-based US population
groups to Listeria monocytogenes in 20 food categories.
We then took these data and related them to public health
While this information was a beginning, it only showed us
the who, not the how, of the illnesses caused by this pathogen.
A larger review was needed, one that included data concerning
Listeria monocytogenes in various ready-to-eat products.
A very large survey of these products was then conducted,
which allowed the development of a detailed assessment of
how various processing practices would affect the risk of
contamination of products with this pathogen. Such a risk
assessment takes a lot of work. It is a scientifically-based
process of evaluating the potency of a hazard and the likelihood
of exposure to the hazard, and then estimating the resulting
public health impact. It provides a scientific framework
for understanding the impact of a wide variety of variables
by considering several key questions. The answers gained
by this process then allow for the development of precise,
pro-active policies, designed to reduce or eliminate the
During the course of conducting this risk assessment, we
discovered that a combination of product testing coupled
to increased plant sanitation and pathogen interventions
such as post-packaging treatments, yielded far greater benefits
than any one strategy alone.
The risk assessment also demonstrated that the use of intervention
steps, such as post-packaging pasteurization or the introduction
of growth inhibitors, showed the most dramatic public health
benefits. Importantly, it showed that testing product of
the environment would result in limited risk reduction.
If we had yielded to the political pressure to do something
about Listeria at the time of the Listeriosis outbreak in
the fall of 2002, before the assessment was complete, then
we would have never known this critical information. In addition
the interim final rule the agency published last year would
not have as strong or effective without such as assessment.
We would never have known this important information if we
had not taken the time and effort to conduct this assessment.
The final regulation issued by the Agency last year took
a while to finish, due to the time it took to complete the
risk assessment. However, it is stronger and more effective
than it would have been without such an assessment. I am
convinced that due to our diligence and strong commitment
to science, lives have been saved.
Reporting the Results and Sharing Lessons Learned
Due to our science-based initiatives, we have also reduced
the illnesses caused by two other very important pathogens.
The prevalence of Salmonella in raw meat and poultry appears
to have dropped by 65% over the past six years and by 16%
compared with 2002. Out of the number of regulatory samples
collected and analyzed by FSIS between January 1 and October
31, 2003, 3.6 percent tested positive for Salmonella,
as compared with 4.3 percent in 2002; and 10.7 percent in
1998. Most significant is the fact that illnesses due to
E. coli O157:H7, a pathogen most often associated
with undercooked hamburger, decreased a full 36% in only
The data for these three pathogens validate and endorse our
scientific approach to improving public health through safer
food. I often say we have the safest food supply in the world.
The results I have just reviewed directly underscore this
But as I was alluding to before, none of these accomplishments
were quick fixes. Logic isn´t always clear and good science
is a series of building blocks, piecing together different
bits until the solution is found. Nor is our work completed.
We must always review and refine our measures. And finding
the scientific answers is only half of the battle.
The results of sound science can be dramatic indeed. And
it is for this, the rare opportunity that I mentioned earlier
to improve people´s lives that we do what we do. And there
is always more that can be done. Pathogens continue to evolve
and thus our strategies to combat them must also progress.
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.
These are only a few examples of the work we´ve undertaken
to share the important information science has shown us.
I think we can all agree that our final destination should
be the elimination of food borne illness.
If we cannot completely eliminate it, we can certainly do
all we can to minimize it to the greatest extent that science
will allow. In the early part of the 20th century, infectious
diseases were the leading cause of death among Americans.
But as our knowledge of science and the importance of sanitation
grew, and technologies such as refrigeration and pasteurization
were developed, lives were saved. According to the US Patent
and Trademark Office, over 14,000 patents related to food
safety have been issued in the past 25 years. Currently,
there are another 3,000 pending applications for food safety-related
inventions. I believe that in this century, science and technology
will again help to make our food supply even safer and save
We at USDA must encourage the use of safe and effective interventions,
and do all we can to ensure that we facilitate the process
of transferring new technologies from the bench-top to the
Apply the Method to Your Career
Before I close today, I would like to give you a little advice
when planning your future career and in achieving a leadership
position. First, you need to formulate your purpose, your
vision. As all good scientists should, you need to keep an
open mind. Will it be a job with the private sector, helping
to discover new products that better serve people around
the world or with academia, working to validate or disprove
current scientific assumptions? Or will you take a non-scientific
route, such as working for Congress on issues such as funding
for public grants or perhaps working for a future Administration,
developing public policy designed to improve the lives of
Your hypothesis needs to include the pros and cons of each
path, and your predicted outcomes. The procedure step of
your model should include your observations from events such
as this meeting, and "experiments" such as internships and
jobs you may have had.
Data gathering is an obvious factor in whatever path you
are researching. In addition to obtaining information about
a prospective employer, you need to do some internal data
gathering as well. There may be no scientific proof for "gut
instinct", but it is an important tool you have.
The results of your investigation might not be immediately
apparent. And like good lab experiments, it might simply
generate more questions, not the answer you were seeking.
Such is life, and we can only go on the information we have
and make the best possible decisions from what our research
The conclusion, a summary of your life "experiment", hopefully
will not be written until much later on. You may even get
to call it a memoir and have it published in something other
than a journal of science!
If there is one thing I would like to pass on to you, it
is to let you know that no matter how smart you are, or how
many degrees you have, no one can know all of the answers
all of the time. We can waste way too much of our "ATP" worrying
that we haven´t taken the right path at the right time. Remember
you have been trained in inquiry, and that the scientific
method can be applied to all sorts of questions, not just
those generated in a lab. Do your due diligence in researching
your options, and then listen to your inner voice. You have
the skills, the knowledge, and the opportunity. Go for it!
Thank you so much for your attention, and for your dedication
to the pursuit of knowledge. I wish you all Godspeed in your
studies, and in your research projects. Now, I believe we
have time for a few questions..