|Food Safety and Inspection
United States Department of Agriculture
Washington, D.C. 20250-3700
Office of the Under Secretary for Food Safety
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Remarks prepared for delivery by Dr. Catherine Woteki, Under Secretary for Food Safety, before the Cairns Group seminar on future directions of U.S. food safety strategies, May 11, 1998, Washington, DC.
Good morning. Its a pleasure to be here today to discuss the USDA strategy for food safety and the guiding principles behind the strategy.
Several years ago, following an outbreak of foodborne illness on the West Coast of the United States, USDA began a major strategy for change to reduce the incidence of foodborne illness associated with meat and poultry products. Since then, several major initiatives have been successfully implemented, including safe handling labels on products, expanding testing for microbial pathogens, performance standards for pathogen reduction, and mandatory HACCP systems to prevent and control contamination.
In addition, in 1997, President Clinton announced a major Food Safety Initiative that provides new funds for needed improvements and research, and unifies the various food safety initiatives being carried out by Federal agencies sharing responsibility for food safety in the United States. This is a multi-year effort under which we are seeing cumulative improvements being made in such areas as foodborne outbreak surveillance, quantitative risk assessment, and food safety research.
All of these initiatives, and all of our food safety policy decisions, are unified by the underlying principle that public health is our number one priority. Our food safety programs must be designed in a manner that best protects the public from foodborne illness. In order to adhere to this public health focus, we must have a solid scientific base to support our decisions. Today, I would like to briefly illustrate how we are building this scientific base and how it is being used to guide food safety policies and initiatives.
Food safety research is one area where we are intensifying our focus and placing additional resources. Research is extremely important in establishing a scientific base for food safety regulatory policy. We must base our policy decisions on the best science available to us. The challenge before us is that there is so much we need to know about the hazards in food and their relation to illness in humans. There is much we need to know about the ecology of pathogens, and much we need to know to design interventions to prevent foodborne illnesses.
The Federal government plays an important role in supporting agricultural research, including food safety research, but we are also reaching out to the private sector and to academia to help fill data gaps. Last year, USDA published a Food Safety Research Agenda that outlines our priorities in food safety research for the foods we regulatemeat, poultry, and egg products. In addition, under the Presidents Food Safety Initiative, an interagency working group has been convened by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to coordinate Federal research priorities and planning. By prioritizing research needs and coordinating our efforts across the Federal government, we can ensure that our research dollars are well spent.
One of our most critical research needs is for data, information, and methods to support quantitative microbial risk assessments as a means of identifying the human health risks associated with the foods we regulate. Risk assessments can help us to identify significant food safety hazards and potential strategies to prevent, reduce, or eliminate those hazards.
Working in cooperation with the Food and Drug Administration, we recently completed our first such risk assessmenton Salmonella enteritidis in eggs and egg products. We expect the risk assessment, which is now undergoing review prior to publication, to serve as a prototype for the future.
Risk assessments will improve policy decisions by estimating the potential impacts of specific interventions on preventing human illness. For instance, for Salmonella enteritidis in eggs, we are very interested in determining the impact of changes in time/temperature requirements at different stagesfrom production through processing and distribution to preparationon foodborne illness.
We will soon publish jointly with FDA an advance notice of proposed rulemaking that will lay out a farm-to-table strategy for improving the safety of eggs and egg products. This risk assessment is providing us with valuable information we can use to continue to refine our strategy.
Surveillance for foodborne diseases is another area where we are devoting additional resources and seeing some interesting developments. The Presidents Food Safety Initiative created an early warning system for foodborne disease surveillance, which allows us to more quickly detect and respond to outbreaks of foodborne illness.
The existing foodborne disease active surveillance network, called FoodNet, has been expanded under the Presidents initiative. In addition, a new computer network linking the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, USDAs Food Safety and Inspection Service, and FDA, has been established to capture the molecular fingerprints of pathogens in a national database.
This database permits us to quickly compare an E. coli O157:H7 bacterium cultured from a patient in Washington State, for instance, with a bacterium isolated from a patient in California. This can lead investigators to a product distributed in more than one location contaminated with the same organism. Thus, what might have previously been considered to be isolated, sporadic cases can now be recognized as part of a larger outbreak.
The expanded foodborne illness surveillance system has already provided important data. We have found, for instance, that Campylobacter is the number one cause of sporadic cases of foodborne illness in the United Statesinformation that was not available to us before. Because of this finding, we have taken a number of steps to address the problem. First, case-control studies are being carried out to determine more precisely the sources of infections. Second, we are working hard to develop new testing methodologies to improve the costly and labor-intensive methods currently required to sample, isolate, and identify this fragile pathogen. Third, we also expect to begin a targeted sampling program for Campylobacter this month to gather data to support further development of strategies to reduce foodborne illness attributed to Campylobacter. These activities together will help to develop a scientific base for setting performance standards for Campylobacter in the future.
Developments in research, risk assessment, and surveillance are critical to establishing the scientific base we need to make regulatory decisions that focus on public health. But we will never have all of the information we need and must make regulatory and policy decisions based on the information available to us today.
The Pathogen Reduction and HACCP rule, which is now being implemented in meat and poultry slaughter and processing plants, is an example of the actions we are taking today based on the scientific information available to us. As you know, the rule mandates HACCP as a means of preventing and controlling contamination, requires plants to implement Standard Operating Procedures for sanitation, requires plants to test for generic E. coli, and establishes pathogen reduction performance standards for Salmonella.
The provisions for Standard Operating Procedures for sanitation and generic E. coli testing are now in place, and large plants were required to have HACCP implemented and to meet Salmonella performance standards as of January 26, 1998. Small plants must have these provisions in place by January 25, 1999, and very small plants by January 25, 2000.
HACCP provides an important framework for improving food safety because as new data and information become available, HACCP systems can be updated to reflect this information. And HACCP is also being implemented for other foodsFDA made it effective for seafood in December 1997 and published a proposal for HACCP for juices just a few weeks ago.
Farm to Table
In addition to a focus on public health, another important principle on which all of our food safety activities are based is the need to take a farm-to-table approach. We recognize that a multi-faceted approach is necessary to solve todays complex food safety problems.
For example, our research activities are not solely focused on what we can do within plants to reduce and control pathogens. We also are very interested in what steps can be taken on the farm and after products leave plants to improve the safety of meat, poultry and egg products.
Future risk assessments, too, will cover the entire farm-to-table continuum. We must address the full array of risks that can occur during production, slaughter and processing, transportation, storage, retail sale, and preparation by consumers.
Education is another important farm-to-table issue. We must educate not just consumers, but everyone who has a role in food safety. It is necessary for everyone to recognize his or her responsibility in the farm-to-table chain.
In closing, we are making very good progress on our strategy to reduce the incidence of foodborne illness. We have a structure in place to ensure we obtain the scientific information we need to make policy decisions that are based on public health priorities, and we are making changes within our food safety programs to reflect this new knowledge.
Together, these elements form a food safety program that will help us to meet our goal of reducing the incidence of foodborne illness attributed to meat, poultry, and egg products.
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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