Food Safety Data
Remarks as prepared for delivery by Brian Ronholm, Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety, Safety DataPalooza, Alexandria, Virginia, October 30, 2015
Good afternoon and thank you for having me here today. I’m Brian Ronholm, the Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
I’m here to speak on behalf of Deputy Under Secretary Almanza who could not be here but sends his best wishes to you all.
Deputy Under Secretary Almanza and I lead the Food Safety and Inspection Service within USDA, which is responsible for ensuring that the nation’s commercial supply of meat, poultry, and egg products, whether domestic or imported, is safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged.
Food safety can be a complex challenge. There are numerous pathogens and chemical hazards that we work to keep out of the food supply every day.
Roughly 1 in 6 Americans get sick from foodborne illnesses each year. That’s 48 million individuals.
These illnesses are not always related to product that my agency regulates, but FSIS is working with other state and Federal public health agencies to make this number as low as possible.
Billions of pounds of meat, poultry, and liquid egg products are produced, transported, and sold every year.
A system of this magnitude requires constant vigilance and innovation to prevent the possibility of foodborne contamination.
Data is one thing that can help us improve early signal detection to confront these challenges.
As we modernize data collection methods, we are able to prevent more cases of foodborne illness and we can respond faster to those outbreaks that do arise.
Over the past years, a lot has changed at FSIS. One major goal of ours is to ensure that the Agency modernizes effectively by implementing new developments in science and technology that are rooted in the work of researchers and public health experts.
Modernizing our methods has contributed to an overall decline in bacterial foodborne illnesses.
In Fiscal Year 2014, cases of foodborne illness traced to FSIS-regulated products dropped by 10%.
This year, we updated new performance standards for poultry to reduce Salmonella and Campylobacter. When implemented by industry, they are expected to reduce 50,000 illnesses annually.
We’ve come a long way, but modernization becomes increasingly important as the food safety industry faces ongoing challenges.
Technology presents us with great opportunity to find innovative ways to respond to outbreaks more quickly and more effectively.
As a regulatory agency, FSIS is in charge of monitoring meat and poultry products produced by federally-inspected establishments.
We are modernizing the way we do things, but carcass-by-carcass inspection remains the cornerstone of our work.
FSIS is legally required to have inspectors present in every plant that processes meat, poultry, and egg products.
It’s for this reason that our system of inspection is the most reliable in the world.
When necessary, we work with industry to perform food recalls to protect the public and to ensure that unsafe, adulterated, and misbranded food does not enter the market.
Unsafe products are discovered through either notification by the company, FSIS sampling test results, FSIS field inspectors and investigators, or epidemiological data that is submitted by State and local public health departments or other Federal agencies.
When foodborne illness-related outbreaks do occur, we use data to trace the outbreaks back to the contaminated product so that we can find the source and prevent future illnesses.
Data Collection History
Over the years, we’ve collected information through several avenues including: our Consumer Complaint Monitoring System and our Meat and Poultry Hotline, where consumers can report illnesses or other food safety issues over the phone, via email, or chat.
We also launched and continue to improve the Public Health Information System, or PHIS. This comprehensive electronic system helps the agency more effectively identify public health trends and food safety violations.
PHIS informs us, in near real time, how plants are performing, allowing us to detect problems sooner, and address them before they lead to an outbreak.
Along with other agencies, such as FDA and CDC, we’re working on improving estimates of foodborne illness source attribution derived from outbreak data.
We analyze data from consumers, PulseNet, the media, and state and local departments of health to improve early signal detection and to advise agency response.
PulseNet is a national network of 87 laboratories that use DNA fingerprinting to detect and define foodborne illness outbreaks.
By working with the states, PulseNet is able to find people who get sick with the same pathogens.
Recently, we’ve been working with state public health departments and consumers to use information from grocery shopper loyalty cards so that we’re able to trace back suspect foods to the source and can prevent future illnesses by recalling the food that is linked to contamination.
When meat, poultry, or processed egg products are implicated, we send out our investigators to examine the situation and respond appropriately with regulatory action.
Meanwhile, our laboratory testing for pathogens continues to evolve with the advancement of whole genome sequencing, which we expect to incorporate in the coming years.
The data informs our efforts to prioritize food safety initiatives, interventions, and policies for reducing foodborne illnesses.
Social media and technology allow us to take data collection a step further.
By using social media, we can detect and respond to foodborne events that might be associated with FSIS-regulated products.
This allows us to engage with our consumers and provide them with more information at a quicker rate.
We use the data that we collect from consumers as much as we can. However, CDC recently found that about 45% of foodborne illnesses go unreported.
For those cases that do go unreported, social media presents great opportunity to detect and mitigate food safety hazards.
FSIS has already seen great success with the use of social media and technology for our consumer outreach.
We have several smartphone apps including the Meat and Poultry Directory, which provides a searchable collection of all of our establishment and Ask Karen, which provides 24/7 assistance and tips on preventing foodborne illness.
In addition, we worked with Cornell University and the Food Marketing Institute to create a smartphone app to promote food safety and prevent food waste.
So far, over 85,000 people have downloaded the app since its release in April.
The app provides information to ensure that food is still fresh enough to eat, protecting consumers and their loved ones from foodborne illness.
It’s a perfect example of a successful partnership between educational institutions and the Federal government and it shows us that consumers are interested in using technology to learn about food safety.
Looking forward, FSIS is partnering with several academic institutions, other agencies and local departments of health to see how we can improve our data collection, and in turn, improve food safety.
Crowd sourcing information through social networks has been enormously successful for organizations and businesses and has potential to impact food safety as well.
You may have heard of Foodborne Chicago—it’s one example of a partnership between local government and social media that uses data to identify and respond to foodborne illness.
Over the past few years, the Chicago Department of Public Health and civic organizations teamed up to use an automated system that reviews local tweets and identifies people who may have been affected by food poisoning.
The Department of Health then gives them the opportunity to provide symptoms and information about where their suspected food came from.
Data from social media can allow us to stop outbreaks in their tracks and to work more closely with consumers.
Faster data reception allows us to inform consumers sooner about foodborne illness, which can in turn influence their decisions about where to eat or what to buy.
We all have one thing in common—we eat food every day. We want this food to be safe and we want to protect our families from illness whenever possible.
With data, the possibilities are endless. If we work together with scientists, educators, consumers, and industry, we will become a more transparent government that can engage consumers and protect public health.
To continue to promote innovation, to make the next Foodborne Chicago app, and to help protect consumers from foodborne illness, we need your help. This goes beyond government. We all have a role to play.
Thank you for having me today and I hope you enjoy the rest of the discussion!