|Food Safety and Inspection
United States Department of Agriculture
Washington, D.C. 20250-3700
Remarks prepared for delivery by Dr. Catherine Woteki, Under Secretary for Food Safety, before the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, Chicago, IL, November 2, 1997.
It's a pleasure to be here with you today at your conference on food safety, food sufficiency, and security. Secretary Glickman sends his regrets and best wishes for a successful conference. The interrelationships between these important food-related issues is something I have thought about many times, both from a domestic and an international perspective. I appreciate the opportunity you have provided for government, industry, and others to discuss these issues in an open forum.
I also appreciate the ongoing work the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) does in helping public policy decision makers understand scientific research that affects food, agricultural and environmental issues. It is of utmost importance to me, and to Secretary Glickman, that we base public policy decisions on sound science, and therein lies the rub. The real challenge comes in translating scientific information into public policy. Conferences such as this one provide us with an opportunity to discuss important food related issues so we can determine solutions, and implement those solutions, together.
Of course, food safety is the issue with which I am most directly involved in my current position, and it is a topic that CAST has addressed many times. In 1994, CAST issued a task force report entitled Foodborne Pathogens: Risks and Consequences. In that report, CAST made a number of recommendations for reducing foodborne illness. Let me mention just a few here today.
Food safety policy should be based on risk assessment.
The food safety information database should be expanded to provide more complete information on the incidence of foodborne disease by pathogen and by food.
Control practices should be applied from food source to consumption, including the incorporation of HACCP principles.
The public should be well educated regarding safe food handling and the relative and changing risk status of individuals.
The CAST task force report was extremely important, in concert with recommendations from other expert groups, such as the National Academy of Sciences, in building a scientific case in support of change that would better address pathogenic microorganisms in the food supply. Unfortunately, despite the fact that the scientific community has known for some 20 years of the importance of pathogenic microorganisms as a public health threat, real change has occurred only in the past 4 to 5 years.
The agent for real change was not a scientific report, but a 1993 outbreak of foodborne illness attributed to E. coli O157:H7 in undercooked hamburgers. That outbreak was a defining moment in the history of pathogen reduction because it took the scientific information on paper and made it real for the American public. That outbreak, as tragic as it was, was not the largest outbreak in U.S. history. But this pathogen scared people, because it didn't take much to make someone sick, and children were particularly susceptible. And the food source implicated--hamburgers--was a traditional, all-American meal.
The tragic outbreak provided an impetus for change that has permitted USDA to take the expert scientific advice that it already had and accomplish quite a bit. Let me review some of those accomplishments with you.
In 1993, USDA issued a rule requiring safe handling labels that address storage, cooking, and holding practices for raw meat and poultry products.
In 1994, USDA declared E. coli O157:H7 as an adulterant when present in raw hamburger and initiated a monitoring program for the pathogen in ground beef.
In 1995, CDC, USDA, and FDA initiated a Sentinel Site Surveillance project, now known as FoodNet, to collect more precise information about the incidence of foodborne illness, especially illness caused by Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7. The program collects foodborne illness incidence data from seven sites around the country.
In 1996, after a thorough public process, USDA published its landmark rule on Pathogen Reduction and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP). The rule requires all plants that slaughter and process meat and poultry to implement HACCP systems as a means of preventing contamination from pathogens and other hazards. To make sure HACCP systems are working as intended, the rule also sets in-plant performance standards for Salmonella, and we will conduct testing to ensure those standards are being met. Indeed, this is a very significant step, because it is the first time USDA has set a performance standard for a broad range of raw meat and poultry products. We will begin implementing these two provisions of the rule in January 1998, starting with the largest plants.
We have also adopted a farm-to-table approach to food safety, and we're making progress by working closely with other government agencies, professional groups, academia, and industry. For instance, at the animal production level and intermediate stages before the slaughter plant, USDA is working with producer groups to develop and encourage measures to reduce food safety hazards associated with animals presented for slaughter. We believe that the voluntary application of food safety assurance programs, based on HACCP principles, has a role in reducing risks.
At the transportation to retail level of the farm-to-table chain, we are working with FDA to develop standards governing the safety of foods during distribution. We are placing particular emphasis on time and temperature control as a means of minimizing the growth of pathogenic microorganisms.
At the retail level, we are working again with FDA, and with State officials, to ensure the adoption of science-based standards and to foster HACCP-type preventive approaches--largely through the Food Code process.
We have also made progress in educating consumers about food safety. In June, USDA, in cooperation with FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sponsored a conference as a means to share information on changing food safety behaviors. And just one week ago, we announced a new food safety education campaign, the result of a unique public-private partnership consisting of industry, government, and consumer groups, that urges all Americans to "Fight BAC!TM"...that's B-A-C...and reduce foodborne illness by confronting foodborne bacteria.
The high priority being given to food safety is evident in the fact that this year, President Clinton announced two major food safety initiatives. The first, which was announced in January, includes measures to modernize food inspection and manufacturing procedures, increase research into foodborne pathogens, create an early warning system to detect and respond to foodborne outbreaks, and strengthen coordination among federal, state, and local food safety agencies. The Partnership for Food Safety Education, which developed the "Fight BAC!TM" campaign, was launched in conjunction with this presidential initiative. Indeed, this initiative addresses the recommendations that CAST made in the 1994 report.
And on October 2, the President called for additional actions to improve the safety of domestic and imported fresh fruits and vegetables. He announced his intention to send to Congress legislation giving FDA additional authority regarding imported fruits, vegetables, and other foods. He also directed FDA to work with USDA, and in close cooperation with the agricultural community, to issue guidance on good agricultural practices and good manufacturing practices for fruits and vegetables.
Together, these steps are significant. And they sound an awful lot like the recommendations contained in the 1994 CAST report.
I believe we are making good progress in our efforts to reduce foodborne illness. For the future, however, we need to work harder to understand the complex interrelationships that exist between the three "S's"--safety, security, and sustainable agriculture--both on a domestic and global basis. USDA uses the term food security to include the availability of sufficient quantities of food, access to adequate resources to acquire food, and utilization of the food through adequate diet, water, sanitation, and health care.
All of our food safety decisions have other implications, whether they involve the environment, animal health, international trade, or the economic health of industries. We cannot consider food safety issues in a vacuum.
The recent problem with Pfiesteria piscicida on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, which has killed tens of thousands of fish, is a good example of a multi-faceted issue with public health, environmental, and economic implications. Manure from chickens is being singled out by environmentalists as the source of pollutants causing the problem. Farmers are saying that if they can't use poultry waste as fertilizer on crops, what else can be done with it? And the seafood industry is attempting to maintain public confidence in its products at a time when there remain many questions about the public health implications of the problem. To date, there is no evidence that ingestion of Pfiesteria or its toxins poses a risk to humans, but based on sales of fish and seafood, clearly the public fears that there may be a food safety problem.
You will see all three of these issues--food safety, food security, and sustainable agriculture--receiving high level attention by USDA now and in the future. The fact is, safe food is of little importance to those who don't have enough food to eat. And our ability to produce enough food will be severely compromised if we don't take care of the environment on which we depend to produce that food.
Regarding world food security, Secretary Glickman led the U.S. delegation to the World Food Summit, which was held last November in Rome, Italy. At that summit, 186 countries adopted the Rome Declaration and World Food Summit Plan of Action, which set the goal of reducing the number of undernourished by half no later than the year 2015 and identifying actions that nations should take to achieve that goal. The United States subsequently adopted the goal as a domestic target as well, and has embarked on the development of a U.S. Action Plan on Food Security to strengthen what the U.S. Government, the private sector, non-governmental organizations, and other sectors are doing to reduce hunger and malnutrition both at home and abroad.
Food and water safety will, no doubt, be important components of that action plan. While the U.S. food and water supplies are among the safest in the world, we recognize that public health problems such as foodborne disease and drinking water contamination are an increasing concern. And these concerns are not limited to certain segments of the population--they affect all of us. Internationally, food safety will be an integral part of actions developed to assist countries with poor food security to become more self reliant.
Food safety is also linked to the health of the environment. Policies that support farmers taking more sustainable approaches, such as restrained use of pesticides and the introduction of integrated pest management, benefit food safety as well, because they help to reduce the contamination of food products with potentially harmful levels of chemical residues.
The Food Quality Protection Act of 1996, which strengthens the U.S. pesticide regulatory system, provides us with unprecedented opportunities to provide greater health and environmental protection, particularly for infants and children, as well as other vulnerable populations. It establishes a single, health-based standard for all pesticide residues in all foods. It provides for a more complete assessment of potential risks, with special protections for potentially sensitive groups, such as infants and children. It places stringent conditions on the consideration of benefits in setting pesticide residue limits and expands consumers' "right to know" about pesticide risks and benefits. Overall, it establishes a more consistent, protective regulatory process, grounded in sound science and adaptable to future advances in scientific understanding.
To promote sustainable agriculture, we also need to expand research into organic agriculture and integrated pest management, provide education in sustainable agricultural practices, and educate consumers about food and agricultural systems to enable them to make better choices about food consumption.
As the theme of this conference suggests, food-related policies have international, as well domestic, dimensions. We recognize that open markets help to improve the availability of food worldwide, and we must ensure that our food safety policies, and the food safety policies of other countries, do not unfairly close these markets.
The Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade established rules and commitments for agricultural trade, and these agreements are now the framework for ongoing efforts to lower trade barriers and expand access to world markets. Countries must ensure that their sanitary and phytosanitary measures are based on science and risk assessment principles.
USDA is committed to ensuring the steps it takes domestically to improve food safety are consistent with international food safety policies. The Pathogen Reduction and HACCP rule and our increasing focus on risk assessment, for example, are both consistent with the GATT agreement.
This commitment to consistency in international food safety policies is reflected in the active role the United States plays in the Codex Alimentarius Commission. The work of the Commission is critically important to establishing international food safety standards. We are increasing the resources we devote to Codex activities, and we recently selected a new Codex manager, Edward Scarbrough, who reports directly to my office.
We believe the move toward international standards, and the establishment of domestic policies that are consistent with international policies, will help to avoid trade disputes, particularly those that are not really about food safety but are about protecting national trade interests. And in the end, this translates to a safer and a more abundant food supply world-wide.
In closing, I believe it is quite obvious that decisions affecting food safety, food security, and sustainable agriculture are closely intertwined on a domestic, as well as international, level. USDA's strategy in all three areas is being closely crafted with these interrelationships in mind. And it is developing these strategies through a completely public process--a process in which we encourage groups such as CAST to become involved.
I look forward to working with all of you on these important food-related issues in the months and years to come.
For Further Information Contact:
FSIS Food Safety Education and Communications Staff
Public Outreach and Communications
Phone: (202) 720-9352
Fax: (202) 720-9063
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