|Food Safety and Inspection
United States Department of Agriculture
Washington, D.C. 20250-3700
Remarks prepared for delivery by Dr. Elsa Murano, Under Secretary for Food Safety, U.S. Department of Agriculture, before the First World Congress on Food Irradiation, May 5, 2003, Chicago, Ill.
(Slide 1) Good morning. It's a pleasure to join you today at this First World Congress on Food Irradiation. I certainly want to thank the National Food Safety and Toxicology Center at Michigan State University for sponsoring this meeting.
As some of you may know, in my past life before joining USDA, I was a researcher and educator in academia--first at Iowa State University and then at Texas A&M University. My professional background is in microbiology and food science, and irradiation is a topic in which I am well versed from a scientific perspective.
But I appear before you today in a different role--that of a public health and food safety regulatory official. That does not mean I have to throw what I know out the window. On the contrary, because food safety policies must be science-based, my background as a microbiologist and food scientist is extremely useful. But I will leave the technical discussions regarding irradiation to other speakers on the agenda and speak from my current role as a public health official.
(Slide 2) Let's start with the burden of foodborne illness. While data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show progress in fighting foodborne illness, the fact is, it remains a significant public health problem in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths are caused by foodborne pathogens each year.
(Slide 3) There are limitations to these data. As we well know, this is just an estimate--many cases of foodborne illness go unreported. And we cannot be sure how many of these illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths are caused by meat, poultry, and processed eggs--the foods regulated by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).
(Slide 4) But we do know that these numbers are too high, and we must do whatever is necessary to reduce illnesses as much as possible. That is why FSIS is implementing a broad and long-term science-based strategy to improve the safety of the products it regulates.
(Slide 5) As the famous American critic and essayist Henry Mencken said, "For every problem, there is one solution which is simple, neat and wrong." I believe his words ring true as we debate how to break the cycle of foodborne illness. There is no one solution, and there are no simple answers.
(Slide 6) We also know that we are aiming for the proverbial "moving target." That is the nature of public health. As knowledge improves, new problems are identified, and new tools to reduce hazards are available, our strategies must change as well.
I will now describe what actions we are taking and then discuss how irradiation fits into our broad strategy.
(Slide 7) One of our strategies is to bridge gaps in our monitoring of food safety systems. The majority of FSIS' regulatory authority lies within slaughter and processing establishments. However, we recognize the need to work with our government partners at the Federal, State and local levels, and with industry, to encourage steps that will address food safety along the entire farm-to-table continuum.
After all, we don't necessarily have to take a regulatory approach with every problem--nor should we. (Slide 8) For example, at the animal production level, where FSIS does not have statutory authority to issue regulations, we want to work with producers to develop voluntary guidelines to reduce pathogens before animals ever reach federally inspected facilities.
Once products leave the processing plant, they are transported and held in all types of different facilities, including warehouses. Again, opportunities exist to address hazards at these points. FSIS has statutory authority to issue regulations here and to conduct inspections, but FSIS has not focused a large number of its resources at these points. FSIS is now considering what actions it could take that would impact public health.
And finally, food handlers in restaurants, schools, hospitals and individual homes have an important role in keeping food safe. We certainly can't regulate consumer behavior, but we can provide education, (Slide 9) and that is what we do day in and day out. I hope you have a chance to visit our new food safety mobile, which is on exhibit at the Food Marketing Institute's annual meeting right here at McCormick Place. The mobile is our way of taking food safety on the road--literally--to reach food handlers nationwide.
(Slide 10) Second, along with addressing the farm-to-table continuum, we need to continue to improve our science-based policy making. This includes being able to identify hazards that exist today as well as emerging hazards-- and developing policies to address them. The implementation of HACCP in meat and poultry plants was a major step in food safety history. But HACCP is simply a foundation on which to build. HACCP systems must address the hazards identified, and both industry and government must verify that these systems are working as designed. Ensuring that HACCP systems address the hazards likely to occur is not a one-time exercise but a continual process.
(Slide 11) We have been carrying out our science-based policy making with the help of risk analysis. Good examples are our risk assessments for Listeria monocytogenes and E. coli O157:H7 and the policy changes we are anticipating as a result. We need to improve the risk analysis infrastructure for policy making because risk analysis allows us to prioritize our policy-making activities based on the public health outcomes they are expected to achieve, and it allows us to make policy changes that are more effective.
(Slide 12) And third, along with science-based policy making, we need to encourage the application of validated decontamination methods throughout the farm-to-table continuum. This is an example of where we all must work together for progress to occur. Industry must ensure that the decontamination methods it uses are validated, for they are of little use without this important step. Researchers must work to develop new technologies that can be used farm-to-table. Government has a role as well. (Slide 13) FSIS has made a conscious effort to encourage industry to use new decontamination technologies within plants, but we intend to streamline the approval process for such technologies as much as possible so we do not hinder industry innovation.
(Slide 14) With these three efforts underway--bridging the gaps in monitoring food safety systems, improving science-based policy-making, and ensuring the application of validated decontamination methods-- I believe we can make great progress in our goal of improving public health.
(Slide 15) I'd like to now talk about irradiation in the context of the need for validated decontamination methods, because it is one more tool available--in addition to other methods such as antimicrobial sprays and rinses-- to reduce contamination on meat and poultry products.
As a public health regulatory agency, the decision to approve decontamination methods is based on whether the technology is safe and effective. Irradiation meets both of these criteria. Irradiation has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for meat and poultry as well as for a variety of other foods. Irradiation has been endorsed and supported by many highly respected public health organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Medical Association, and the World Health Organization. In fact, it is one of the most thoroughly researched processes in existence.
(Slide 16) Even though irradiation has been approved for various meat and poultry products at different dose levels for years, irradiation has received much attention recently largely due to congressional action associated with the 2002 Farm Bill. The bill included several provisions related to irradiation. For example, it mandated that commodities such as meat and poultry that are treated by any technology approved by USDA and FDA to improve food safety – of which irradiation unquestionably applies -- must be made available to the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). It also directs FSIS to develop an educational program on irradiated meat and poultry products.
(Slide 17) At this time, FSIS is working with the Food and Nutrition Service and Agricultural Marketing Service to implement the Farm Bill provision to make irradiated product available through the commodity program. At present, FNS is pilot testing educational materials through the state of Minnesota. These materials are being developed so schools--and the families they serve--- will have the educational materials they need to make an informed decision once irradiated products are offered. USDA's goal is to be as open and transparent as possible.
(Slide 18) FSIS also is charged with educating the broader public about irradiation and other processes to reduce pathogen levels on meat and poultry, and we are working on this project now. For example, a brochure on irradiation is being developed that will be tested by focus groups. In addition, we are considering partnering with universities around the country to educate the educators about irradiation.
Recent news articles have covered the reaction to Congress' mandate to permit irradiated meat and poultry in the school lunch program, and we know from calls to our Meat and Poultry Hotline that consumers have many questions. These questions range from whether hamburgers can be served "rare" if irradiated ground beef is used, to what type of labeling is required for irradiated products.
I think such debates and questions are to be expected. Even though irradiation is not a new technology, it is certainly more widespread now. (Slide 19) We must respect the consumer's right to choose what he or she wants to purchase, and that is why the labeling requirements are so important. At the same time, it's clear that we must educate the public so they can make informed decisions.
There are two points I believe it is imperative that we make in our education programs (Slide 20).
First, FSIS inspects all meat and poultry products, including those that are irradiated, and these plants cannot use irradiation to substitute for good sanitation and process control.
Second, consumers need to know that while irradiation reduces the level of pathogens, it generally does not make meat or poultry products sterile. The process does not replace proper cooking or food handling practices by producers, retailers, and consumers.
(Slide 21) In closing, I believe irradiation offers us an important tool in our fight against foodborne illness. But it is just that--another tool, not the only tool available. I encourage those of you who develop new technologies to continue your efforts because I believe that innovation will have an important role in enabling us to reach our public health goals.
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For Further Information:
FSIS Congressional and Public Affairs Staff
Phone: (202) 720-3897
Fax: (202) 720-5704