|Food Safety and Inspection
United States Department of Agriculture
Washington, D.C. 20250-3700
Remarks prepared for delivery by Thomas J. Billy, Administrator, Food Safety and Inspection Service, before the Third Annual Federal-State Conference on Food Safety, November 21, 1997, Sacramento, Calif.
It's a pleasure to have time this morning to discuss the future of Federal-State cooperation in food safety. As I said yesterday, the challenges we face to reduce the incidence of foodborne illness are significant, and we must rely on partnerships to better use our resources, avoid duplication, and close the gaps that could compromise food safety.
In FSIS, we have a long history of working with State-administered meat and poultry inspection programs, and we are now in the process of taking steps to strengthen, and hopefully expand these programs. We consider them an integral part of the national regulatory system for ensuring the safety of the Nation's meat and poultry supply.
Describing the State programs as part of the national system is an extremely important concept, because we cannot look at the Federal and State programs as separate entities. On the contrary, they must be considered as parts of a whole, and any initiatives we undertake must be carried out with that perspective in mind.
I believe FSIS's commitment to that concept is clear with HACCP implementation. We have worked closely with the States throughout the rulemaking and implementation process as a means of ensuring that the provisions in the HACCP rule are appropriate for State, as well as Federal, plants. The longer implementation time for HACCP in "small" and "very small" plants is one way we have addressed this need. In addition, we have a number of ongoing activities to assist small plants. And we will help States with training and laboratory needs as well.
Our relationship with State-administered meat and poultry inspection programs is important, but it is just one aspect of our relationship with the States. We are working to broaden our connections with the States in the same way that we have broadened our approach to address the entire farm-to-table chain.
We are making progress by working closely with other government agencies that share food safety regulatory responsibilities, professional groups, academia, and industry to encourage the adoption of HACCP-type systems all along the farm-to-table continuum. Federal-State cooperation at points outside of federally inspected plants is critically important because the States are involved in all facets of food production, marketing, and education.
FSIS has also changed its approach to handling foodborne illness outbreaks, which has helped to forge closer ties with Federal and State public health officials. The outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 on the West Coast beginning in late 1992 was a turning point for FSIS in terms of our coordination and work with States. We made a shift from an Agency that was simply reacting to a contaminant in a meat or poultry product to a more proactive approach that was more appropriate for a public health agency.
Our recent reorganization of FSIS reflects this strengthened focus on public health. We created a new Office of Public Health and Science, headed by Dr. Kaye Wachsmuth, to provide expert scientific analysis, advice, data and recommendations on all matters involving public health and science.
We now have an Emerging Pathogens and Zoonotic Diseases Division, which monitors emerging human pathogens in the food supply and the animal population. We have an Emergency Response Division, which leads and coordinates all Agency investigation and trace back activities associated with outbreaks of foodborne illness and all recall activities. We have a Food Hazard Surveillance Division, which maintains both active and passive surveillance systems for foodborne hazards and illness. And we have an Epidemiology and Risk Assessment Division, which uses risk assessment to guide and support the risk management and communication decision-making process in FSIS. These changes have better prepared us to handle food safety emergencies, plan for the future, and work with our State and Federal public health counterparts.
We have made great progress in expanding the connections, but we have much more to do to make the Federal and State programs work together in a more seamless fashion.
One important step in this process is to acknowledge that the Federal and State governments have distinct roles when it comes to food safety. We believe there are certain things that the Federal government should do, and certain things that States programs should do, and we must proceed with these distinctions in mind.
For instance, the Federal government, in my view, should take the lead, with academia, in the identification of food hazards through risk assessment. It should be responsible for establishing food safety standards that can then be applied jointly by Federal and State programs. The Federal government also should take the lead in encouraging national and international uniformity in food safety standards in order to maintain consumer confidence in the safety of food, regardless of whether it was produced under a State, Federal, or foreign inspection program.
The States, too, have significant roles. We have long recognized that the States have the lead regulatory role over the retail food sector, with support from FDA, FSIS, and others. This is an increasingly important area of public health concern, as we find the distinction between retail and inspected establishments blurring, with many retail operations now carrying out the same processing operations.
We recognize the States' important food safety role during the distribution of products as well.
We also recognize the State's primary role in animal production food safety. You already have networks in place to address these segments of the farm-to-table chain, and we believe it is your responsibility to take the lead in encouraging needed food safety improvements. Looking to the future, the State programs also could be the primary link with small plants having a local market, an important responsibility considering the large number of such operations nationwide. Many small plants have a close and productive working relationship with their State inspection programs, and we believe those relationships should be maintained and expanded.
But, if we are committed to maintaining and strengthening State programs, we must be prepared to invest in and support those State programs where appropriate. Funding is one way we can accomplish such investment.
For instance, as I mentioned yesterday, we are now developing legislation to permit the interstate shipment of State-inspected product, under certain conditions. Removal of the interstate shipment prohibition, along with other changes, we believe could cause an influx of "very small" plants to State inspection programs. This would allow the State programs to gain efficiencies in their operations through economies of scale. On the downside, more plants would translate to higher total costs and could threaten the existence of State programs.
In return for States assuming inspection responsibilities for those plants relinquishing grants of Federal inspection, we believe it is appropriate to explore, among other things, raising the 50 percent cap on Federal reimbursement to State inspection programs. There are many hurdles that such a proposal would have to clear, but we are committed to trying.
I also mentioned yesterday that we are exploring, with FDA, the concept of enhancing the in-distribution and retail inspection activities now carried out at the State level. This is an area where we know there are increasing hazards, and it is an area where we believe the States need to be better equipped to handle the growing regulatory challenges.
If we can identify specific new tasks or Federal support activities that will reduce the risk of foodborne illness, we can try to establish the means to perform these tasks. Again, this is an idea we are simply exploring at this time.
In addition to providing support to State programs, we need to work towards uniform standards as much as possible between Federal agencies, between Federal and State agencies, and among State agencies. In terms of meat and poultry inspection, the Pathogen Reduction and HACCP final rule sets requirements that all Federal, State, and foreign plants must meet. It is important for consumers to know that the meat and poultry products they consume must meet the same standards, regardless of whether they are produced under a Federal, State, or foreign inspection program.
Uniform standards are also important at the retail level, and we believe the Food Code is the best vehicle possible for establishing uniform standards nationwide. We encourage States to adopt and implement the Code to the maximum extent possible. We encourage all relevant Federal agencies to become actively involved in the Food Code process as well.
The animal production area is another area where I believe the States can play a major role. Increasing pressure is being placed on the animal production community to take steps to reduce pathogens in live animals. We recognize that the science is not there yet to know exactly what management practices can reduce pathogens, but we are making some progress, and I urge you to support these efforts. The partnership strategy and models we heard about yesterday should be considered as well.
I also urge you to expand networks within your States and among States to coordinate food safety activities. Are your agricultural specialists working closely with your public health specialists? We at the Federal level recognize the need to do the same. In fact, on Wednesday, field personnel from FSIS, APHIS, and FDA met to discuss mutual food safety issues. We hope to hold more of these meetings in the future.
In closing, I believe we have come a long way, and I am confident we can make even more progress in the months and years to come. I urge all relevant Federal and State agencies to become more involved in the various ongoing food safety activities occurring at both the State and Federal level. I encourage all of us to think outside the box as we address our food safety problems.
We have a lot of work ahead, but I believe the benefits will far outweigh the effort involved. It may take some time for us to feel completely comfortable in this new working relationship, but I am confident that once we achieve it, we will never go back to the way it was before.
I look forward to working with all of you in the months and years to come on our mutual goal of improving food safety.
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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