|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 Range Beef Cow Symposium, December 9, 1997, Rapid City, South Dakota.
It's a pleasure to be here today to update you on USDA activities that have the potential to affect the beef cattle industry. Secretary Glickman regrets that he could not be here himself but sends his best wishes for a successful symposium. I also understand that Senator Daschle's 50th birthday is today. What an excuse not to be here this year. He is a long-time supporter of this Nation's agriculture industry, and the beef industry in particular. He's also a proponent of basing our food safety and other policy decisions on sound science, which is a theme I'd like to elaborate on today.
It is clear that agriculture is entering a new era. Government is easing out of the marketplace, recognizing that when it comes to the forces of supply and demand, perhaps the best role for government is to simply get out of the way.
But this less interventionalist role for government does not equate with a less important role. On the contrary, by easing out of the marketplace, USDA is free to focus on the big questions of agriculture's future. For instance,
How do we feed a growing world without destroying the environment?
How do we help farmers and ranchers and others involved in providing food to the public, small and big, stay viable?
How do we ensure a safe and wholesome food supply for the public?
And how do we expand global markets for U.S. products?
Food safety is my most direct concern in my current position, so I will focus on USDA food safety initiatives today. I recognize, however, that all of our food safety decisions have other implications, whether they involve the environment, animal health, international trade, or the economic health of industries such as your own. We cannot consider food safety issues in a vacuum. We must take a comprehensive approach to food safety by recognizing the complex interrelationships that exist among these food-related issues. To that end, you will hear the Secretary and me discussing food safety in concert with a host of other agricultural issues, including the environment, world hunger, and international trade.
Our comprehensive approach to food safety must also recognize that all of us involved in producing, preparing, and regulating food have a responsibility for food safety. It is not helpful to point fingers and assign blame to certain segments of the farm-to-table chain for food safety problems. While I recognize that much pressure is being placed on animal producers to improve food safety, we all share in the responsibility for food safety. We must all determine what we can do, individually, to ensure that this farm-to-table food safety chain is strong.
I don't have to tell you how important this responsibility is, not only to the public health, which is my number one concern, but also to the economic viability of your industry. The 1993 outbreak of foodborne illness attributed to E. coli O157:H7 in undercooked hamburgers was a tragic event for the families involved, and it undermined public confidence in beef products as well. It was a defining moment in the history of food safety because pathogen reduction became a viable goal that all of us, from industry to government, have accepted. We may disagree on specific aspects of approaches to meet that goal, but the need for safer food is supported by all.
Today, I hope, and believe, we are past the point where we must have huge outbreaks and headlines to spur continued improvements in our food safety systems. We have a good strategy in place, and I know we have support at the highest level of government for our food safety activities. This year, President Clinton announced two major food safety initiatives that support, and expand, the direction we have taken. And Sunday, in a N.Y. Times interview, the President said that food safety is high on his agenda for the next three years.
I would like to review for you where we are with our food safety accomplishments, and where we are headed.
The farm-to-table chain begins at the animal production level, so that is where I will begin this discussion of food safety activities. While we use the term "farm-to-table" frequently, by no means do we see government directly intervening on the farm or ranch.
We do, however, see government as having a role in encouraging research to determine what steps might reduce pathogens on the farm, and during intermediate stages, such as feedlots, before animals reach the slaughter plant. This research base is vitally important for the development, by industry, of voluntary food safety plans, which is our eventual goal.
We recognize that this is a significant challenge. We have come much farther in developing preventive programs for residue control than we have for the control of microbial pathogens. Scientific information does not exist at this time to show what is effective and economically feasible at production stages to reliably eliminate--or at least substantially reduce--pathogens in carcasses. There are many complicating factors controlling microbial hazards before slaughter, including unknown reservoirs, the ubiquitous nature of some microbial pathogens, the lack of specific, sensitive, and inexpensive diagnostic tests, and the lack of an array of cost-effective, preventive interventions such as vaccines, probiotics, and other technologies.
These data gaps illustrate why research is so important at the animal production level. We need to know more about how management practices affect pathogens in live animals and how levels of pathogens in live animals correlate with levels of pathogens within slaughter plants. We are seeing some progress, however. For instance, there is some evidence that water troughs and feed are reservoirs for E. coli O157:H7.
There are serious data gaps, but I believe we do not need to know all of the answers before we take concrete steps at the animal production level. We must develop plans based on the information we have today, and update them as new information becomes available.
Looking back at history, we can find many examples where action on a public health problem has been taken before all of the answers are in. In 1849, a large waterborne outbreak of cholera occurred in London, and John Snow, a founding member of the London Epidemiological Society, set out to find the source. By studying the distribution of cases, he was able to conclude the problem was coming from a well in one part of town. To control the epidemic, he simply took the handle off of the pump. It was not until some 34 years later, in 1883, that the cholera vibrio was identified, but he was able to make the association between the disease and the source--and end the epidemic--without knowing all of the details.
Today, we are seeing some States take action on food safety at the animal production level, even with incomplete information. The State of California is encouraging producers to work with its Department of Agriculture to implement quality assurance programs addressing food safety. I understand there are discussions ongoing between producers and the agriculture departments here in South Dakota, and in Nebraska, Colorado, and Idaho regarding certification programs addressing food safety and quality. We believe this industry-driven, grass-roots approach is the best way to achieve our mutual end goals of a safe food supply and a vibrant agricultural economy.
Beyond the animal production level, within slaughtering and processing plants, USDA is taking a much more direct role. This is largely because this is the segment of the farm-to-table chain where it has the most regulatory authority, and thus, the most responsibility.
On July 25, 1996, USDA reached a milestone with publication of the final rule on Pathogen Reduction and HACCP. By January 1998, approximately 300 meat and poultry slaughtering and processing plants--the largest in the country--will be required to have developed and implemented a HACCP program with science-based controls to prevent and reduce food safety hazards. Small plants will have until January 1999 to implement the programs, and the very smallest operators will have until January 2000. We are encouraging the industry to implement HACCP programs before they become mandatory.
To verify that HACCP systems are effective in reducing contamination with pathogenic microorganisms, we have set pathogen reduction performance standards for Salmonella that slaughter plants and plants that produce raw, ground meat and poultry must meet. Except for the zero tolerance for E. coli O157:H7 in raw ground beef, which has been in effect for several years, these are the first performance standards for pathogens on raw meat and poultry.
In addition to the HACCP requirement and Salmonella performance standards, since January 1997, all meat and poultry plants have been required to develop and maintain written Standard Operating Procedures for Sanitation to reduce the likelihood that harmful bacteria will contaminate the finished product. And slaughter plants also have been required to test for generic E. coli as an indicator of the adequacy of their controls for fecal contamination.
In addition to these regulatory steps, we are encouraging the development and use of new technology to reduce pathogens within plants. Steam pasteurization and antimicrobial rinses are examples of technologies that we believe should be encouraged as a means to improve food safety. And just last week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of irradiation as a means of pathogen control for fresh and frozen red meats such as beef, lamb, and pork.
We have worked closely with FDA during this approval process to facilitate the rapid completion of a USDA rule the spells out the procedures plants would be required to follow to irradiate meat, including ground beef. We view irradiation as another weapon in the fight against pathogens that can contaminate raw meat and poultry.
These are significant changes within plants, but we have not finished the job. We believe there are additional changes we can make in the way we carry out inspection activities, specifically those associated with carcass-by-carcass inspection. We have known for some time that there are activities we carry out within plants as part of the inspection process that have limited value in terms of public health protection or meeting other consumer protection responsibilities. We also know that there are important public health tasks that we do not carry out under the current system of inspection. We have recently selected three pilot plants in which we plan to explore new ways of conducting inspection, followed by a public process to obtain public review and critique of our findings.
We are also encouraging changes during the transportation and retail levels of the farm-to-table chain. At the transportation stage, 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. The Food Code is a model food safety code for the retail level that States and local jurisdictions can adopt in total or in part.
Education and training are very important in allowing us to make progress farm to table. The regulatory changes we have made provide an incentive for plants to reduce pathogens. But we believe that education and training are just as important in changing behavior. Producers do not always fully understand how their on-farm practices influence the safety of the food product ultimately reaching the consumer. Individuals responsible for transporting food are often now aware of practices that could result in contamination of food during shipment. Consumers, even in this day and age, and with all of the publicity on food safety issues, are often unaware that food choices and food handling practices could increase the risk of foodborne illness.
On this last issue--educating consumers about food safety--we do have some new developments. 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 in late October, we announced a new food safety education campaign, the result of a unique public-private partnership consisting of industry, government, and consumer groups. The campaign urges all Americans to fight "BAC,"--that's B-A-C, a green, slime-oozing bacterium. I think you'll be seeing this educational campaign gather momentum in the coming months in the media as well as in schools.
The changes we are making to strengthen our food safety programs will benefit all of us. From a public health perspective, we expect a safer meat and poultry supply to translate into fewer cases of foodborne illness. We've set ourselves the goal of reducing foodborne illnesses by 25 percent in five years. We will be able to measure our progress through our relatively new FoodNet system, which tracks the incidence of foodborne illness at key sites around the country.
The changes we are making also will benefit those involved in the business of producing food. Consumers will have greater confidence in the safety of your products, which should improve their marketability. And we will be in a better position to market meat and poultry products overseas, a critical advantage when you consider the importance of expanding global markets to the U.S. economy. If you have any doubts, let me provide you with a few figures.
Agriculture is the leading positive contributor to the U.S. trade balance
Agricultural exports have increased 50 percent in the past 5 years.
Farm exports support 1 million good-paying U.S. jobs.
Agriculture is twice as dependent on exports as the average U.S. industry, and that number will only increase in the future.
That is why we have developed our food safety strategy with full consideration of the impact of these changes on the marketability of U.S. products. To that end, we are ensuring that our domestic food safety programs are science-based and consistent with international trade obligations. In this way, they will be more likely to survive challenge during trade disputes.
We also are committed to the development of international food safety standards as a means of harmonizing standards to the highest level of food safety. We are working through the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which we believe is the most appropriate venue for bringing science, risk assessment, and equivalency to the fore internationally.
As we pursue these strategies, we have a mechanism in place for addressing those situations where food safety is being used as a barrier to trade--namely, the World Trade Organization. We will be aggressive in challenging unfair trade barriers relating to meat, poultry, and other foods by going to the WTO to fight on the merits of sound science. The rule on beef from animals administered hormones, for instance, was a critical victory achieved through this process.
In closing, I believe with the food safety strategy we have developed, we are in a good position to answer one of the big questions of agriculture's future--that is, how do we ensure a safe and wholesome food supply for the public--now and in the future? And I believe it does so in a manner that is consistent with other USDA priorities, such as the expansion of global markets and maintaining the viability of agriculture-based businesses of all sizes.
Much remains to be accomplished, but I am confident we will succeed in the same manner that we have so far--by working closely with all of our constituencies to develop fair and effective food safety policies and programs that are consistent with our national goals.
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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