Oral Statement of Brian Ronholm, Acting Under Secretary for Food Safety Before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies
Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Farr, and members of the Subcommittee, I am Brian Ronholm, Acting Under Secretary for Food Safety at USDA. With me are Phil Derfler, Deputy Administrator of USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and Michael Young, USDA’s Budget Officer.
We are pleased to be here today in support of the President's FY 2015 budget request for FSIS, which is set at $1.001 billion, a $9.3 million decrease from FY 2014. With this funding level, we are confident that FSIS will maintain the effectiveness of its core mission of preventing food-borne illness. We are also confident that the budget will provide every establishment we regulate with appropriate staffing levels.
The main driver of FSIS’ Strategic Plan is the focus on the Agency’s public health mission and the ability to adapt to evolving food safety risks. Our Annual Performance Plans are linked to the Strategic Plan and hold the Agency accountable by reporting on the accomplishments and deficiencies, as measured by 36 specific items within eight goals.
FY 2013 Accomplishments
The first goal in the Strategic Plan is to ensure that food safety inspection aligns with existing and emerging risks. As noted in the budget, the All-Illness Measure shows a reduction of approximately 52,000 illnesses in FY 2013.
In addition to this reduction, FSIS “met” or “exceeded” 81 percent of its annual performance measures.
While these accomplishments are significant, there is much work to do, especially in reducing the incidence of Salmonella.
Salmonella is one of the most challenging issues facing FSIS, and combating it is the agency’s top priority.
In 2013, the Agency developed the Salmonella Action Plan, which outlines the measures FSIS will employ to lower contamination rates. The plan includes developing new performance standards for ground poultry and chicken parts. Both performance standards would be established by FSIS, and we believe it will help reduce consumer exposure to Salmonella.
Modernization to Improve Food Safety
Another key component of our Salmonella Action Plan is our effort to modernize poultry slaughter inspection. We first began inspecting poultry in 1957 and based on the science available then, the inspection system was focused on improving food safety through identifying visual defects. Since then, however, we have learned a great deal about invisible pathogens; but our inspection system has remained the same.
As an Institute of Medicine (IoM) report stated in 2003, “While the standards established in the early part of the twentieth century were highly successful in accomplishing the objectives to which they were targeted, their success, and our increasing scientific sophistication, has led to the recognition of new problems that cannot be adequately addressed using existing standards.”
The IoM report pointed to two problems: the first involved shellfish; the second one was the current poultry inspection system.
The IoM report stated that it is virtually impossible for current inspection techniques to identify products bearing “invisible” microbial contamination by a specific pathogen. Therefore, it is unrealistic to expect the current inspection system to have an important impact on reducing infections in humans.
The proposal to modernize inspection allows FSIS to realign the duties of our inspectors so that they can also focus on these invisible pathogens and on proven food safety measures.
A peer-reviewed risk assessment shows that a system that provides for increased off-line food safety inspection activities results in greater compliance with regulations, and to lower levels of fecal contamination and equivalent or lower levels of Salmonella contamination. The risk assessment estimates that this new approach will prevent at least 5,000 foodborne illnesses each year.
We recognize that there have been concerns expressed about the proposed rule based on findings in a GAO report about the pilot program. Just to clarify what the report said: GAO found that there were limitations in the agency’s data analyses in evaluating the poultry pilot. This was the one significant finding that GAO outlined with respect to the poultry pilot. And, GAO even acknowledged in their report that FSIS plans to address these limitations in the final rule.
It should be noted that the report was not an indictment against the poultry slaughter rule. In fact, GAO described the pilot project, and the effort to deploy inspection resources more effectively, as a positive step.
The dedicated men and women of FSIS work every day toward a common and extremely important goal of preventing food-borne illness. We take our mission seriously and understand the importance of our work.
Thank you for the opportunity to report on the work we do to protect public health.