|Food Safety and Inspection
United States Department of Agriculture
Washington, D.C. 20250-3700
Remarks prepared for delivery by Dr. Kaye Wachsmuth, Acting Deputy Administrator, Office of Public Health and Science, Food Safety and Inspection Service, before the Interagency Meeting on Food Safety and Nutrition Research, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, May 12, 1997, Ottawa, Canada.
It's a pleasure to join you today to discuss food safety research needs. FSIS Administrator Tom Billy was supposed to be here with you today, but he had to be at the White House for the announcement of the President's Food Safety Initiative. He is sorry he had to miss this meeting. But the good news is that the President's initiative includes an increased investment in food safety research. And the fact that the initiative merits a White House announcement is evidence of the priority food safety is being given in the United States.
As you know, USDA holds a meeting similar to this one each year as a way of communicating research needs and the status of current research projects. We were pleased to have Canada represented at the most recent meeting in December, and we are pleased to have the opportunity to participate in your meeting this week.
As you know, FSIS has embarked on a series of significant changes to improve food safety and reduce the incidence of foodborne illness associated with the consumption of meat, poultry, and egg products. We have made significant changes in the regulatory structure of our food safety programs with the final rule on Pathogen Reduction and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP), which published in the July 25, 1996, Federal Register. The rule provides an important framework for carrying out a comprehensive strategy to improve food safety. It substantially improves the ability of meat and poultry establishments and FSIS to target and systematically prevent and reduce food safety hazards and to continually improve food safety as science and technology improve.
It also clarifies the respective roles of industry and FSIS in ensuring the safety of meat and poultry products. The rule makes it clear that the industry is responsible for producing and marketing products that are safe, unadulterated, and properly packaged and labeled. The government's role is to set performance standards and verify that industry is meeting its food safety responsibilities.
We are now in the process of implementing the rule. On January 27 of this year, all plants had to have in place Standard Operating Procedures for Sanitation. Slaughter plants also had to begin testing for generic E. coli as a means of ensuring their processes are under control with respect to the prevention and removal of fecal contamination.
We are now gearing up for HACCP implementation. On January 26, 1998, large plants will have to have their HACCP systems up and running. By January 25, 2000, all plants will be required to have HACCP systems in place. On those same dates, our performance standards for Salmonella become effective for raw and ground products. Except for our current performance standard for E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef, this is the first time we have established a performance standard for raw products.
We made it clear in the final rule on Pathogen Reduction and HACCP that countries that export to the United States must establish inspection system requirements that are equivalent to U.S. requirements. On May 13, we will hold a public meeting to discuss our approach to equivalency determinations with regard to the requirements for Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures and E. coli testing.
We also are undergoing a reorganization to better prepare the Agency to operate in a HACCP environment. The reorganization streamlines the headquarters and field management structures to maximize the resources available for frontline food safety activities. It unifies four separate field structures into one structure to carry out all domestic and international meat, poultry, and egg product inspection and compliance activities. The reorganization also created a new Office of Public Health and Science, which provides new scientific focus, leadership, and expertise in addressing the most important public health risks related to meat, poultry and egg products. Another new office--the Office of Policy, Program Development, and Evaluation-- centralizes the management of all policy, rulemaking and program development activities to better lead and evaluate program changes.
We are also broadening the focus of our food safety programs by exploring what steps can be taken at each step of the food chain to reduce the risk of foodborne illness. Those in control of each segment of the farm-to-table continuum bear responsibility for identifying and preventing or reducing food safety hazards that are under their operational control.
It is essential to this process that we have information that is as accurate as possible on the incidence of sporadic and epidemic disease due to the major foodborne pathogens. To that end, FSIS is working with the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and local health departments in five states on an active surveillance system, called FoodNet. With more accurate information on the incidence of foodborne illness, we can better determine whether changes we make along the farm-to-table chain are working as intended to reduce foodborne illness, and we can more quickly identify emerging public health problems.
At the animal production level and intermediate stages before the slaughter plant, FSIS is working with industry, academia, and other government agencies to develop and foster measures that can be taken on the farm and through distribution and marketing of animals to reduce food safety hazards associated with animals presented for slaughter. We do not intend to mandate production practices at this stage but instead, believe that the voluntary application of food safety assurance programs based on HACCP principles can be useful in establishing risk reduction practices on the farm and during intermediate marketing stages.
Food safety during transportation and storage also are important links in the food safety chain. In the United States, FSIS, FDA, and State and local governments share authority for oversight of food products at this stage. FSIS and FDA are working together to develop standards governing the safety of foods during transportation and storage, with particular emphasis on the importance of time/temperature control in minimizing the growth of pathogenic microorganisms.
In the retail area, FSIS and FDA are again working with state officials to ensure the adoption of uniform, science-based standards and to foster the adoption of HACCP-type preventive approaches. State and local authorities have primary responsibility for food safety oversight of retail stores and restaurants, but FSIS and FDA can provide guidance to foster the development and adoption of sound food safety standards and practices nationwide. For instance, at the end of this month, we will begin a series of training sessions for state regulators in cooperation with the Association of Food and Drug Officials to provide information on new technologies and packaging systems at the retail level that might pose food safety problems.
Research is extremely important to the success of our food safety initiatives. It provides the scientific information that we need to guide policy decisions. The regulatory changes we have made and the strategy we are pursuing are based on the best scientific information we have available today. For instance, the performance standards for Salmonella that are contained in the final HACCP rule are based on what we believe is achievable today with current technology. But we recognize that we must be ready not only to adapt our food safety programs to new scientific information, but to actively seek new information to improve the effectiveness of our programs.
FSIS is not a research Agency, so we must rely on others, particularly the research agencies within USDA, to realize our research objectives and provide the scientific data needed to make regulatory decisions. Although we may not be involved in carrying out this research, we have an important role in helping to shape the research agenda that supports the fundamental changes we are making.
To that end, last year, we established the Food Safety Research Working Group, a group of scientists representing a broad base of expertise. The group was asked to determine research needs for public health goals, determine what research is needed to support the Pathogen Reduction and HACCP rulemaking, and to shift the research orientation from the current technology-based approach to a risk-based approach.
The group used its considerable expertise to reach a consensus on the major research questions that need to be answered for the major foodborne pathogens. These questions form a strategic research agenda that will be used to develop an operational plan for meeting research needs. Primarily, we are seeking to identify linkages between pathogens present on or in food animals and consequent human disease and to use this information to identify effective interventions consistent with the public health risk. We also need better tools to generate those data. An example is a much simpler and more rapid way to isolate and identify Campylobacter, which has been shown to cause the majority of sporadic outbreaks of foodborne illness associated with meat and poultry products in the United States. I brought copies of the research agenda with me today.
While USDA's Agricultural Research Service is charged with conducting research for USDA agencies, its efforts alone cannot be expected to address or answer all of the questions posed in the research agenda. For research on human health, FSIS will work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, and the Food and Drug Administration. This inter-agency approach to food safety research planning and implementation is important not only to meet research needs but to ensure that we avoid duplication of efforts. We will also invite participation of academic institutions and the industry as appropriate to meet our food safety research needs.
Risk assessment plays a significant role in determining research needs because it enables us to identify data gaps and to target research that should have the greatest value in terms of public health impact. While the discipline of microbial risk assessment is in the developmental stage, we are making some progress. FSIS scientists have designed a risk assessment model for hamburger and E. coli O157:H7. And we are working with FDA and others on a quantitative risk assessment for shell eggs and egg products.
We also have decided to contract for a risk assessment on Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE). This risk assessment will allow us to determine the degree of human health risk associated with this hazard in the United States. This in turn will tell us whether there is scientific justification for taking any regulatory action regarding the consumption of certain tissues where the hazard is more likely to be present. We hope to have the risk assessment completed by the end of the year.
Risk assessment can be used not only to target research needs, but to identify interventions that are consistent with the public health risk. And it can help us to evaluate alternative strategies to address those risks to determine the most cost-effective solutions.
The broad initiatives we are implementing--the Pathogen Reduction and HACCP rule and our farm-to-table strategy--provide us with the opportunity to review and re-think our inspection processes. In doing so, we find that a large portion of our inspection personnel are committed to tasks on the slaughter line in establishments where most of the animals are young, uniform, and healthy.
Because of our need to verify HACCP, and our desire to extend our oversight beyond the plant, we know that there will be new tasks to perform. Therefore, we must consider if our existing resources can be redeployed, and if so, how we should carry out this redeployment.
Public acceptance is very important to this process. We are committed to not compromising the current level of food safety and other consumer protection activities. That is why we intend to explore alternatives to the current system of inspection through a thoroughly public process. We want to be sure that all interested parties have the opportunity to provide input.
We expect that the entire process, including the development of new inspection models and in-plant testing, will take 12 to 18 months. We will soon publish a notice in the Federal Register announcing our intention to develop new inspection models and to announce a public meeting. I know that there is interest internationally in exploring new inspection methods, and we look forward to the involvement of other countries in this project.
The President' Food Safety Initiative, which is being announced at the White House today, will help all of the U.S. food safety regulatory agencies achieve significant progress. The report supports the Administration's request for $43.2 million in new food safety money for Fiscal Year 1998 to increase inspections carried out by the FDA and to expand the HACCP approach to the egg and fruit and vegetable industries.
It also will increase research into developing tests to detect foodborne pathogens and to assess the risks of foodborne illness. It will expand the FoodNet surveillance system to detect and stop outbreaks of foodborne illness. And it will establish a national education campaign that will improve food handling in homes and retail outlets.
The initiative also establishes a new intergovernmental group to improve Federal, State and local responses to outbreaks of foodborne illness and a new strategic planning process to ensure that increasing food safety continues to be a top Administration priority.
In closing, FSIS is working with all levels of government and outside groups to improve food safety at each point in the farm-to-table continuum. And the Agency is helping to set a research agenda that will ensure that it has the scientific information it needs to set appropriate food safety policies.
Together, these activities will help to ensure that we achieve the important goal of reducing the incidence of foodborne illness in the United States.
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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