|Food Safety and Inspection
United States Department of Agriculture
Washington, D.C. 20250-3700
Food Safety and Inspection
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Remarks prepared for delivery by Dr. Elsa Murano, Under Secretary for Food Safety, before the National Turkey Federation, January 15, 2002, News Orleans, LA.
Good morning. It is a pleasure to be with you to talk about new directions in food safety policy. I hope you have had a successful meeting thus far, and let me offer my best wishes for the New Year.
First, let me say what an honor it is to have been selected by President Bush and Secretary Veneman to serve as Under Secretary for Food Safety. To have the chance to really make a difference in the food safety arena is a golden opportunity that I do not take lightly.
When I began the job last fall, I indicated that I would spend some time assessing where we are and what has been accomplished before deciding where we needed to go.
I have determined that we have a strong food safety infrastructure. Within FSIS alone, more than 7,600 inspection personnel verify the safety of meat, poultry, and egg products nationwide. Combined with the resources of other government agencies at the Federal, State and local levels, we have an extensive system of protection.
In addition to this strong workforce, the Pathogen Reduction and HACCP rule has been implemented nationwide, in plants of all sizes. As you know, this rule is a major achievement in that it represents a significant modernization in the way meat and poultry are processed, with emphasis on prevention and control of food borne hazards.
The tragic events of September 11th certainly have highlighted the importance of maintaining and improving this infrastructure, and of adapting it to new food safety threats as they arise. Intentional harm to our food supply is a unique situation, one that we never envisioned would take center stage in our country.
Yet, whether intentional or unintentional, threats to the safety of our food supply can only be addressed by a strong infrastructure, with systems in place to prevent contamination and address hazards. Thus, we must continue to strengthen this infrastructure if we are to maintain consumer confidence in our food supply and our regulatory programs.
To achieve this, I firmly believe that we need a science-based approach, and my goal as Under Secretary for Food Safety is to see real progress made in this area. We are entering a new stage in the development of our food safety programs, and we must begin by defining in more detail what we mean by science-based.
HACCP is at the core of this approach. The success of the Pathogen Reduction/HACCP rule has been proven in a number of ways.
First, Salmonella testing data shows that since the implementation of the rule, the prevalence of this pathogen has significantly decreased in all product categories, including turkey.
Secondly, small and very small plants have improved in their business practices, having increased the number of audits they perform on suppliers by 20%.
Thirdly, data from the Centers for Disease Control show significant reductions in foodborne illness, which CDC has stated are likely due to implementation of the rule. And fourthly, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, the net economic impact of the rule has been an increase of $9.3 billion in household income (1993 dollars) due to reduction in foodborne illness. But we must take HACCP to a new level, and this can be done in numerous ways.
For example, performance standards are an important verification tool for HACCP. This is not a new message—you have heard it before. And FSIS has many performance standards that are enforced to address product safety, including a zero-tolerance for pathogens in ready-to-eat products, and performance standards for Salmonella at slaughter plants.
However, the recent debate over the Salmonella performance standards in grinding operations, and how they should be enforced, illustrates the type of tough questions that remain. Science tells us that performance standards are needed, since they serve as a measure of the success of food safety programs. However, it is not enough to set just any performance standard—for the wrong standard can mislead us into believing that systems designed to control hazards are working when maybe they are not. Thus, we must set performance standards that are reliable, and that are accurate in terms of reflecting when control of hazards has been lost. Only with such standards can enforcement be justified.
These tough issues have led us to seek input from the scientific community. Both the National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Foods and the National Academy of Sciences are studying the issue of performance standards, and I am anxiously awaiting their results. The Advisory Committee will be meeting next week, and I invite you to attend the public sessions to learn about their conclusions and recommendations regarding Salmonella performance standards specifically, as well as other related issues.
The work of these expert groups is more than just an academic exercise. Their expert opinion will go a long way towards helping us determine how to select the right standards, and what compliance really means in terms of public safety.
I must emphasize that Salmonella testing in grinding operations has not stopped. We are using it as one way to verify whether either the HACCP or sanitation standard operating procedures implemented by industry are successfully controlling hazards reasonably likely to occur. As you know, our inspectors are charged with such verification activities. Thus, record reviews, visual monitoring of plant personnel, and testing for Salmonella are the tools they will use to determine whether HACCP and sanitation systems are working.
It is because of the important role FSIS employees play that FSIS has underway a Workforce of the Future Initiative. A HACCP-based food safety system requires an inspection workforce that is well trained and prepared to protect the public health, from supervisors to inspectors on the slaughter line.
FSIS needs to increase the proportion of public health and scientific professionals and make available more frontline personnel with scientific and technical expertise in our meat and poultry facilities.
As an example, we recently introduced the consumer safety officer (CSO) occupational series into our workforce. In addition to the 35 already selected, we are requesting an additional 75 CSOs as part of our FY 2002 budget. CSOs will verify that plants have validated their HACCP plans as well as sanitation and microbiological testing programs. They will have the primary responsibility for conducting in-depth reviews on plants that have shown, through various verification activities, that a review of their HACCP plan or SSOPs is warranted.
We are also looking to improve the role of veterinarians in FSIS. The report of a blue-ribbon task force on the future role of veterinarians was published last year. Dr. Bonnie Buntain, who has been selected as FSIS’ Chief Veterinarian, will lead the implementation of the task force’s report, which includes new strategies to recruit and retain these valuable professionals.
These are important steps, but not enough. I’m afraid we’re leaving behind the 6,000 or so line inspectors who are so important to our mission. They, too, must be able to operate in the new, more science-based FSIS. They need to understand HACCP and how it enhances their authority. We intend to review training procedures for plant inspectors and enhance HACCP training to ensure that inspectors clearly understand their responsibilities in the wake of the Supreme Beef court decision.
In addition to performance standards and workforce modernization, a third area I believe deserves more attention is the application of novel technologies to reduce contamination of meat and poultry products. This is necessary to make a quantum leap to the next level of consumer protection.
I noticed that one of the sessions on your agenda addressed new technologies in pathogen reduction, so I applaud your interest and your initiative in continuing to inform your members of ways in which they can significantly improve the safety of their products.
There are many technologies available, but they differ in their effectiveness, ease of use, reliability, and cost. Partnerships between industry and academia are crucial in order to continue to increase the arsenal of weapons against food borne hazards.
As an Agency, FSIS needs to do more to promote the application of technologies that have been validated as effective in reducing pathogens. We must not shy away from delivering this message whenever possible, and from being proactive in encouraging industry to seek approval for new decontamination methods. How we go about all this requires some discussion. For example, should FSIS mandate that interventions be included in HACCP plans for plants that have trouble meeting HACCP goals? I welcome your comments.
Risk assessment is another tool that will enable us to use a science-based approach in our decision-making. Now that we are gaining more experience in this area, we can better use the data currently generated by FSIS through its regulatory programs to formulate sound policy.
Where information is lacking, we must work with researchers to fill the gaps. The analyses we make must be complete, and the models that are generated must stand the rigor of the peer-review process.
In addition to moving forward with HACCP, we are continuing with novel ideas such as HIMP to address the on-line slaughter process. I like to think of HIMP as a total food safety and process control system, and I appreciate the turkey industry’s active participation in this pilot project. As you know, under HIMP, volunteer plants take a more active role in the carcass sorting process, while our inspectors concentrate on more intense inspection and verification activities. The true value of this pilot project is that it is demonstrating how real-time data-gathering can help plants maintain control over product, and how increasing the time that inspectors can spend in verification activities is improving the use of their abilities and expertise in detecting deviations.
As you also know, HIMP is still in its infancy, with FSIS continuing to evaluate it and tweak it to improve it. Just last month, we made changes regarding the point along the processing line at which re-worked product should be reintroduced. With the changes, the plant personnel now place the re-worked carcasses just before they pass by our inspector so that he or she can inspect before they proceed through the line.
FSIS has received numerous comments through public meetings and Federal Register notices, and the General Accounting Office is about to release its own review of HIMP. We welcome all of these comments and are always willing to consider changes that will result in improvements.
For example, this year, we will publish a Federal Register notice the HIMP program for young chickens, and the proposal will include the following improvements.
First, we will propose mandating formalized training for plant personnel that participate in HIMP, something that the Agency had considered independently of the GAO recommendations. We welcome your input on how to implement such a program.
Second, we will propose phasing in the implementation of HIMP over time. The program would also be voluntary, and we would select plants based on certain criteria. This is an idea we have been entertaining for a while, and are glad to learn that it is included in the GAO recommendations.
Third, we would propose that participating plants be required to use statistical process control to control quality defects. Statistical process control does not apply to food safety defects because they already are set at zero.
In addition to these proposals, we will be looking for ways to improve how we receive input from our employees on the program. FSIS employees have provided valuable input during the course of the project, and we want this to continue.
As always, we seek the input of all interested parties, and vow to continue with a process that is transparent and inclusive. We intend to hold a public meeting to present new data from the project and to solicit additional input, so we very much invite your participation.
The last topic I want to address has been at the top of our agenda since September 11th—biosecurity. It is not a new issue but has received heightened attention because of the tragic events of September 11th , and the possibility that the food supply could be the focus of a terrorist act. I like to remind audiences, however, that keeping contaminants out of the food supply has been the job of industry and government for decades.
I constantly get asked the question, “What is USDA doing for biosecurity that’s new?” My answer is that a lot of what USDA needs to do is already being done. We have a long history of success in dealing with food emergencies. That is the result of the strong infrastructure already in place to protect animal health and the public health.
Despite the strong existing system, we know that even a localized event that does not cause significant harm could greatly undermine consumer confidence nationwide. That is why USDA is taking a multi-faceted approach that includes both short- and long-term strategies.
USDA will receive $367 million to strengthen essential programs and services related to biosecurity issues, with some of those funds being earmarked specifically to FSIS.
A critical part of our activities is improved coordination at all levels of government and with our stakeholders. USDA has formed its own Homeland Security Council to coordinate activities with Governor Ridge’s Office of Homeland Security. Within this group, the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs and I are co-chairs of a sub-council charged with protecting the food supply and agricultural production.
This is basically the same group formerly known as FERRET—the Food Emergency Rapid Response and Evaluation Team—that you may have heard of prior to September 11th. It is charged with coordinating activities among the various mission areas within USDA so we can better prepare and respond to terrorist activities that may affect no only food, but also agriculture.
USDA also is working to strengthen its relationship with food safety agencies outside USDA. Given the fragmentation of our food inspection system in the United States, real cooperation among agencies is critical.
My office is committed to achieving such cooperation by working with the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as state and local health agencies, to share information and strengthen coordination of activities from farm to table.
For example, we are working on a couple of initiatives with FDA that will be truly groundbreaking in this area, and hope to have an announcement in the near future, once the details are worked out.
One initiative I can mention is the establishment of the Food Threat Preparedness Network, also known as PrepNet, which is co-chaired by the Administrator of FSIS and the Director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at FDA. Members include EPA, APHIS, DOD, CDC, and state and local health agencies.
The focus of this new group is preparedness as well as rapid response. PrepNet is coordinating the application of respective statutory authorities where appropriate. In addition, it is conducting an assessment of needs with plans to fill the gaps. The sharing of laboratory capabilities and expertise with specific food borne hazards is also underway. Such joint activities are long overdue, and I am committed to keeping this train moving forward.
You may be wondering how FERRET and PrepNet can cut through the red tape of bureaucracy and get some real work done on biosecurity. Here is where F-BAT comes in. You may have heard about F-BAT—the Food Biosecurity Action Team. It’s the folks within FSIS who do the work of protecting our food supply. This is something they’ve done as part of their duties at FSIS and are now focusing their expertise and experience towards food biosecurity. You might say that F-BAT is the “arms and legs” of FERRET within USDA, and of the intergovernmental entity PrepNet, as it relates to meat and poultry.
In conjunction with F-BAT, FSIS is adding new veterinary medical personnel in the district offices who will serve as points of contact on biosecurity issues in each office as part of their professional responsibilities.
In closing, you can see that we have a full agenda ahead of us, and I look forward to working with all of you. One thing I do want to make absolutely clear is that FSIS is a public health agency. Such a statement, however, must be backed up with actions. I invite industry as well as consumers to grade us by our accomplishments, and to be participants in the process that guides us to achieve them. I do want to encourage you in the strongest way possible to help us in our efforts towards consumer education, for only with an educated public will food safety truly reach the table.
For Further Information:
FSIS Congressional and Public Affairs Staff
Phone: (202) 720-3897
Fax: (202) 720-5704
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