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Food Safety: A Farm to Fork Effort

Speeches & Presentations

Remarks prepared for delivery by Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, Under Secretary for Food Safety, at the American Farm Bureau Annual Meeting, January 9, 2011, Atlanta, GA.

Introduction
Good afternoon. Thanks so much for the invitation to join you.

I'm glad to be here to talk about USDA's vision to make our food safety system stronger. Smarter. Better equipped to meet the demands of the 21st century.

Part of that process, is reaching out to everyone in the farm-to-fork system. Farmers and ranchers. Processors, retailers and consumers. Industry and regulators, alike.

That's why it's important to be here along with my colleague, Mike Taylor, from the FDA.

And that's why it's important to be with you today. Because no one…no one…is more important to that farm-to-fork system than you.

You provide food for America and much of the world, and you do so consistently, affordably and safely.

That is critical, noble work—work that the Obama Administration values; work that Secretary Vilsack champions, tirelessly, to the President, Congress and the public; and work that those of us in food safety respect and appreciate.

Public Health is Our Priority
USDA, FDA and other agencies have an opportunity right now to make this food safety system the kind of 21st century system we want it to be. To do that, public health has to be at the heart of our legislative authorities, our regulations, and every administrative action that we take.

We want to do those things that will truly impact public health and prevent foodborne illnesses, so we have to measure how we're doing. And we have to work smarter, more efficiently with our resources.

Most important to me, and to the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, FSIS, is that we serve millions of people around this country and the world, ensuring their health through food safety. We serve families, friends and neighbors, and have a singular goal: making sure they do not get sick from the food they eat.

And not only does a safe food supply save lives, but all of us in this room know that it also supports rural development…trade…business…and the overall economy. Issues at the very core of the Farm Bureau's mission for the more than 90 years that you've worked on behalf of America's farmers and ranchers.

When a person suffers from a foodborne illness, it can cause irreparable harm to his body, and to the life of his family. And the impact of that illness is felt in other ways, too. Health care costs...lost wages...the list goes on.

As a medical doctor, I've seen the impact of foodborne illness, first-hand. And I'm reminded of it every time I sit across the table from a consumer advocate who lost their son or daughter to a single-celled organism, like E. coli.

I hear from livestock producers and meatpackers, too. There's no greater loss than a human life, but when I sit across the table from them, they tell me that a single outbreak and recall is also devastating for them. It impacts their business; it can destroy their business. It impacts their community. It even impacts their entire industry.

A single pathogen can leave a lot of damage in its wake.

The cost of foodborne illness is just too high—especially when you consider that it's entirely preventable.

So food safety is one of those fundamental, but rare opportunities we have to do something in the best interest of all Americans, all people who participate in the food chain—from farm to fork.

Everybody wins when food is safe, and nobody wins when it's not.

Producing safe food is your responsibility, and it's a task that I know you take seriously. Protecting consumers by ensuring the safety of that food is USDA's and FDA's responsibility. And it's our responsibility to make sure that consumers have the information they need to further protect themselves and their families from foodborne illness.

It's important for all of us to remember why we do what we do. We all—producers and regulators alike—want Americans to enjoy a safe, abundant food supply. We don't want anyone in our country—or in the rest of the world—to ever question the safety of the food produced here in the United States.

So today, I want to take this opportunity to talk to you about some of what you can expect from USDA's food safety program under my leadership.

Three core areas of focus will guide our efforts. The first I alluded to earlier; it's prevention. Prevention has got to be the foundation of everything that we do. And it will be. If we aren't preventing people from getting sick, we aren't doing our job. Next, are the right tools to do our job-those we have and those we have to work to get. Tools that industry needs; tools that we at USDA need, and tools that consumers need. And finally, people…and why all of this matters.

Prevention
The way the food safety system currently works relies too much on reaction to problems to keep people safe.

We don't want any outbreaks to force our—or your—hand. We don't want one more family suffering from the loss of a loved one from contaminated food. Food that you produce and that we are mandated to protect.

So prevention is the guiding principle of USDA's food safety program.

We already have many policies that aim to prevent contamination. The food industry has been largely successful at implementing them. Together, we've adapted processes at establishments that prevent contamination instead of finding contamination when it's too late—leading to a recall, or worse, to someone getting sick.

But we have to continue to work hard to reduce pathogens as much as possible before they ever reach the consumer.

What USDA is doing now—and what we all must do—is ask these questions: What we can do to improve food safety? How can we further reduce foodborne illness and give Americans and others around the world confidence in our food system?

There are many industries that already make important investments in food safety. And there are food producers, like you in this room, who make food safety a real core of your business. And consumers are better for it.

But there is room for improvement. Just last month, CDC estimated that 48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die each year from foodborne diseases.

Those estimates make one thing crystal clear to me and to my team at USDA: there are still far too many people getting sick or even dying from something as simple, as fundamental to their lives, as the food they eat. Food.

Foodborne illness is preventable. And until we don't have to worry about someone's child, or someone's parent getting ill from food; and while one of every six Americans is still at risk for foodborne illness, all of us, from farm to fork, have more work to do.

I'd like to talk about a couple of areas that we're focusing on right now to make our food safety system more preventive. There aren't any easy solutions to these issues, but they are real opportunities to make prevention the core of our system.

Product tracing is one of them. In a time when the food supply chain crosses not just state lines, but oceans, we have to improve the way we trace contamination to the source. Our policies must be fully aligned with our goal of prevention.

So USDA is looking at how to pinpoint problems to respond better, faster, more effectively during outbreaks. This reduces illnesses and saves lives. And we're also looking to put a more effective product tracing policy in place for contamination that we find through our regulatory sampling programs, which could prevent outbreaks in the first place.

Another opportunity lies in how we best combat emerging pathogens, including new antibiotic-resistant diseases and pathogens.

The slaughter and processing industries are facing some of these fights....a broader range of Shiga toxin producing E. coli in beef; multi-drug resistant Salmonella in beef and poultry.

We have to stay one step ahead of these threats in the U.S. food supply to be truly preventive.

And we have the ever present challenge of containing familiar pathogens and threats. Salmonella and Campylobacter, for example. Human illness rates from Salmonella have not budged, despite a lot of very good effort on many fronts. We don't fully understand why, but we do understand that we need to continue to find ways to drive down contamination rates in food products if we are going to make progress on human disease. In May of last year, we released new draft performance standards for Salmonella in young chickens, and the first ever performance standards for Campylobacter in that product class.

We have carefully analyzed the public comments, and considered the concerns submitted about these standards. And shortly we will release revised, final standards that reflect that input. We expect that once fully implemented, those performance standards will prevent as many as 25,000 illnesses per year from those two pathogens. That's prevention-based policy.

So we have the challenge of creating policies that prevent contamination from bugs that are constantly evolving and adapting to their environments, and the interventions we have in place to stop them.

And we have to engage producers and industry, the public health community and the public in a real discussion about the risks of emerging pathogens and the best actions to take to fight them.

And there's another way we can make our food safety system more preventive; it's through our work with consumers. I see this as secondary prevention.

Primary prevention is obvious. It's pathogen control, it's chemical hazard reduction, it's preventing contamination to products. But the system isn't foolproof; until we get these preventive measures to work 100% of the time...until they're 100% effective…it is our responsibility to get consumers the information they need.

That means quick, accurate information around recalls and outbreaks.

It also means educating consumers about safe food handling—an area that we work on with stakeholders year-round. Our food safety education programs...our hotlines and online databases...our outreach materials. They're all aimed at helping consumers handle and prepare food safely. Last year we reached over 4 million consumers with our safe handling and public health messages, through traditional and new media. Our Discovery Zone mobile education center, which hit the road last year, touched 430,000 Americans. But despite our best efforts, not enough people are getting these messages and putting them into action.

Something that we're really excited about is our new partnership with the Ad Council to produce a multi-media, bilingual, national public service ad campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of foodborne illnesses and to actually get people to change their food handling behaviors. And we're not doing it alone; we're partnering with other federal agencies, producers and consumers in this effort. It's an example of the secondary prevention USDA will do to keep Americans safe from harm.

Right now, we have leadership from President Obama and commitment from Secretary Vilsack to build a better food safety system, and to move toward our vision to modernize food safety.

We have to take advantage of the momentum that their support gives us to make real inroads to the kind of food safety system we all want to build.

You're the foundation of this system. You know your industry better than anyone. You raise animals and crops that feed not just this country, but the world. And I know that you want them to be safe.

My job, and the job of the 10,000 employees in FSIS, is to protect public health through science-based policies that help drive an industry—an innovative and committed industry—to produce the safest products possible.

I think that, if both industry and food safety regulators, make that shift to prevention...like developing policies that trace contamination to the source...staying ahead of emerging threats...raising food safety awareness for consumers...we can make a real impact on public health.

So prevention will be the foundation of the modern food safety system that USDA and our public health partners will build.

Tools
But to do that, to help build that system, USDA needs to have the right tools in place. So that's the second area where we'll be focusing our efforts.

From the tools in the hands of our inspectors on the line, to the legal authority Congress puts in the hands of our leadership; to science, data and research; we need the tools to build the best food safety system possible.

It's 2011; we know more now about food safety than we did in the past. There was a time when we saw...smelled...touched our way to safe food. That seems simple, almost rudimentary now, but that was the best we could do.

Science finally helped us catch up to foodborne pathogens, but not before lives were lost. If we make the right investments...improve our policies...use data to make more informed decisions now, we can get ahead of the next food safety threat.

We need the best technology and science. Tools that will help us collect and analyze data in a way that most effectively prevents contamination and protects consumers.

At FSIS, investments like the Public Health Information System, or PHIS, which we expect to launch this spring, will help. PHIS will be a way for us to gather and make better use of the enormous amount of data obtained in the more than 6000 plants we regulate. That data, in turn, helps us make better decisions to keep food safe.

Studies and risk assessments are also important. Pathogens and other threats evolve, and we have to evolve, too. USDA recently revamped its research arm to help answer some of the difficult questions that we have to ask ourselves in a 21st century agricultural environment, including our food safety approach.

A little more than a year ago, USDA launched the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, modeled after National Institutes of Health. NIFA, as we call it, has a strong food safety focus.

It's our investment in the kind of research, education and extension activities that it will take to meet the changing needs of agricultural producers, processors and the American people. It's the kind of forward-thinking that we need to reduce foodborne illnesses and help provide a safer food supply.

Research and data also helps us to educate consumers. If we know how people best receive messages...how they currently handle their food...what barriers there are to changing those behaviors...we can better educate them.

Science-based food safety is also the foundation of trade.

Right now, agriculture is leading this nation's recovery. American farm exports totaled more than $108 billion in the last fiscal year, and if current projections hold, this year will be another record year for exports. Agriculture is one of the few major economic sectors running a trade surplus, and it's one that we want to continue to see thrive.

Science-based food safety is important to that success.

There are so many reasons in a modern, global food system why we have to evolve and stay not just on top of, but ahead of food safety threats. Science, data and research help us do that.

It's a set of tools we can use to tackle foodborne illnesses. We're making it an imperative at USDA, and we hope you do, too.

Other, different kinds of tools, are laws, regulation and policies that are all anchored in prevention, and that give us the authority we really need to get the job done.

Let me be clear: That doesn't mean more laws; more regulation; or more policies. We don't want more of these tools simply to have them; we want them to be better and to make sense in today's food production and consumption universe.

For example, the Hazard Analysis/Critical Control Points, or HACCP, approach has been the foundation of USDA inspection since 1996. Sound, solid principles and approach to protecting the food supply. What we're asking now is, can it be improved given all the lessons we've learned—industry and regulators—in the past fifteen years?

Some of those improvements or enhancements are things that we are just beginning to look at, and you can expect more from us in the near future. Some of it we have already taken up. For example, last year, USDA issued draft guidelines on HACCP validation. Validation is not a new regulation, or a new policy. It's something that the agency has always expected under the HACCP system: that a food safety plan can work in theory, and does work in practice.

But after several years, the agency found enough lack of understanding about HACCP validation among industry, and saw enough of the food safety problems that it caused, that we needed to clarify it. It is something that the meat industry asked us to do.

If the agency has resources, information or recommendations to help industry produce safer food, we will share it. Our job is not to make regulations more burdensome; it's to make them clear. And to make them work the way they were designed: to ensure producers can make the safest food possible.

That's what the validation guidance is intended to do.

I know there has been some concern about that guidance; I want to put those concerns to rest. Stakeholders from across the spectrum weighed in on the draft document, and the agency is reviewing that input carefully to issue a better version in the future. We all want to provide guidance that helps, not hurts, our efforts to produce safe food.

Another example of how we are working to better use policy and regulatory tools is humane handling. USDA is responsible for enforcing the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, and we believe that is a serious and important responsibility. I know that, as the people who produce animals for our food supply, you want them raised and treated humanely, too. But we've struggled at FSIS with inconsistency in interpretation and enforcement in this area. We have to do a better job.

So last month, we launched a number of efforts to do just that. Better training for inspectors; an ombudsman—a neutral third party, reporting directly to my office—for humane handling concerns not adequately addressed by the existing system; an Inspector General audit of our own actions in relation to appeals of Agency humane handling enforcement actions; these are some of the steps we are taking right now.

But not only do we need technologic and scientific tools; and laws, regulatory and policy tools; we need improved communication tools that help us better connect to all food safety stakeholders.

USDA will continue to reach out to producers, groups like the Farm Bureau, consumer organizations, other food safety regulators, and even USDA employees. We'll also continue to find new or better ways to connect to the American public.

Because it's time for an informed discussion about the food system.

I know you share that goal to connect; to communicate; to collaborate. You and other farm groups are building an alliance to educate and inform consumers about production agriculture. That effort, the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, is a great example of the kind of collaboration that is needed to make an impact.

USDA will do our part, too. Because food safety is truly a collaboration.

Pathogens follow a long and complex food chain that we're all a part of. To help enjoy the many benefits of safe food together, we'll have to work to ensure that safe food, together.

Let me say here, that USDA's Office of Food Safety and FSIS know where our regulatory jurisdiction begins and ends. And make no mistake: we are not looking to expand it. As you can see, we already have quite a lot on our plates. I want to make that clear.

But if we're going to have a frank conversation about food safety, I also have to say something else here. Our jurisdiction begins at the point of slaughter. But we know that the condition of these animals at slaughter, the contamination rates on their hides and elsewhere, impact the ability of the rest of the system to handle the risk. That's the reality.

And that means that preharvest food safety has got to be a part of the discussion.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service has no control over what happens before food animals reach the slaughterhouse door, but we can work with our partners inside of USDA, and outside—like you—who do.

Because it's the right thing to do for all of our benefit. It's treating pathogens the way they occur: throughout the food system. So in order to prevent foodborne illnesses—to stay true to our mission to protect public health—USDA is going to promote those on-farm practices that we know can reduce the risk of contamination, when we have the opportunity. We need to, we want to, bring together the right people-farmers and ranchers, packers and processors, and scientists, to identify the best technology and practices to reduce risk before slaughter.

That's why our performance standards for Salmonella and Campylobacter, include preharvest recommendations to control those pathogens. And that's why, also in May of last year, the agency released guidance to provide beef slaughter establishments with information on preharvest management controls that can help reduce E. coli O157:H7 shedding in cattle.

We've got to share what we know about fighting pathogens at every stage.

Communication will be a very important tool to help us do that. As members of the American Farm Bureau, you're the voice of agriculture. You can tell us what works, what doesn't; what's affordable and feasible, and what's not. We want to—have to—hear from you about how you think you can help improve food safety.

Secretary Vilsack charged me to turn over every stone, and to explore every opportunity we have to protect the health of Americans. Anything that makes us better and consumers safer is on the table.

I've taken that very, very seriously.

We can't afford to do everything the same way it's always been done, when the world around us has changed. We can't do a good job with bad or inferior tools.

So much of USDA's effort to build a more modern food safety system, will be about making better use of the tools we have and getting the tools we need to do the job effectively.

Technologic and scientific tools; laws, regulatory and policy tools; and improved communication tools.

People
But it takes more than a focus on prevention to move us forward. It takes more than having the right tools. It takes some personal commitment.

And so the last focus area that I want to share with you, but certainly not the least, is very simple. It's people.

People, are why all this matters. That's why we're here. We're doing this work in food production and food safety to serve real people, real families. To keep Americans the healthiest they can be.

As we learned last month from our new Census count, nearly 310 million Americans are counting on us.

I've asked our food safety workforce to always be mindful of that. To remember that whether they're inspecting products on the line; or analyzing samples in the lab; if they're answering phones at a district office, or teaching kids about food safety, what they're really doing is protecting public health.

We're not just inspectors, scientists, managers and administrators; we're moms and dads, sisters and brothers. We're consumers, too. We're all responsible for the safety of food on American tables.

So it may sound simple, but it's an important point. And its one that I've already spent a lot of time on: reminding FSIS employees of the reason why we're here. Telling them that the work we do matters. That people's lives depend on it.

And we're listening to them.

We've been traveling around the country talking to our workforce. Asking them what it would take to make them feel like they are protecting public health. Learning about what they need to do their job well.

We've heard a lot of things—training and development, communication. Anything they need on the ground, in the field, to protect public health. We're listening.

USDA will be protecting, first and foremost, the people we're here to serve...American consumers. And we'll be empowering those we have onboard to do it.

You know, when I was practicing medicine, I took care of many patients with severe foodborne illness. I have seen people's bodies literally shutting down, dying in intensive care units. Heartbroken spouses. Good, strong people, who have survived tremendous challenges, but couldn't survive contaminated food.

I bring those memories with me to work every day. I also come to work every day as a mom. I have two young children at home-just as many of you have young children and grandchildren. And like all of you, I don't want the food that I put on my table, that is supposed to nourish my family, to bring them harm instead.

Conclusion
Food safety has got to be a part of this farm to fork continuum—from start to finish. It has to matter to all of us.

I believe that what you do matters. It is so important. It matters for consumers. It matters for our economy. It matters for our country.

Your products are placed with care on tables every day. They go to children in schools...and to places around the world.

You're some of America's unsung heroes.

So as I was preparing to talk to you today, I thought about what's important to you. I did some research about Farm Bureau positions when it comes to food safety. And I was struck by the similarities between us.

You believe in science-based inspection, targeted according to the risk it poses to consumers. We do, too. Science is the foundation of our work.

You want increased education and training for inspectors. We do, too. We're empowering our workforce with all the tools—including training—they need to do their jobs well.

You want accurate and timely responses to outbreaks to minimize harm to consumers. We do, too. It's part of our sole purpose to protect public health.

Let's build from our shared goals.

Food safety is a farm to fork effort. We all have a vested interest in making this work as close to perfect as possible. Together we reap the benefits, and together, we bear the costs. We're in this together.

So I was glad to have this opportunity to tell you about our vision at USDA to bring food safety into this century, and the questions we'll be asking to get there.

Are we focusing on prevention? Do we have the right tools? And are we empowering our employees to do their absolute best on the job, and remembering the people we're here to protect?

These three questions, and the answers to them, will help USDA do its part to build the food safety system this country needs, and that we all deserve.

Thanks again for the invitation to join you, and I look forward to working with and hearing from you.

—END—
Last Modified Jul 26, 2013