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Release No. 0335.11
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Remarks as Prepared for Delivery: Agriculture Secretary Vilsack Discusses USDA Focus on Food Safety

MILWAUKEE, Aug. 3, 2011- Agriculture Secretary Vilsack today spoke before the annual conference of the International Association for Food Protection on the USDA's focus on food safety:

"Let me first say thank you to everyone here. Over many years, the folks in this room have made incredible strides to ensure that people across the globe eat safe food each day. Your work on the science, standards, tools and methods that make up the modern food safety system cannot be under-estimated.

"And you all have been supported every step of the way by the International Association for Food Protection. So it is my pleasure to be here as the IAFP celebrates its 100th anniversary - and looks ahead to future challenges in the changing food environment in which we live.

"And that food environment is nothing short of remarkable. When I was a kid growing up, probably once or twice a week, my mom used to send me out to our local grocery store, Ben's Market. It was about the same size as the office I work in today – or half a basketball court. And they sold pretty much anything we needed or could imagine needing.

"Today going to the grocery store is a different experience. I went to a grocery store in Washington DC this past weekend, and the number of products was staggering. And all around the country, supermarkets give Americans incredible choices when they are putting together their diets. And too often we take this diversity for granted.

"At the same time – due in part to this unprecedented diversity – the challenge of keeping food safe is growing more complex.

"With 308 million Americans eating 3 meals a day, simple math tells me that our nation is consuming 337 billion meals each year. That is 337 billion opportunities for a safe meal – or not.

"So the scale of the challenge is enormous. And here too, Americans take for granted that the food on their table is safe. They forget about the hard work so many folks put in every day on to keep our food safe.

"But even given the staggering number of meals consumed, too many Americans get sick from the food they eat.

"This year, one in six Americans will get sick from foodborne illness. 128,000 Americans will end up in the hospital. And, this year, 3,000 Americans will die from foodborne illness.

"Behind every one of those statistics is a family. A son or daughter, sister or brother. An aging parent. And, too often, a mom or a dad who was just trying give their child something nutritious to grow on.

"This group understands what is at stake about as well as anyone. And the world was reminded of the dangers of foodborne illness following the deadly E. coli O104 outbreak in Europe that caused more than 50 deaths earlier this year. We've got to do better.

"But no one entity can do it alone. Many folks have a role to play. Safe food takes committed researchers and scientists, producers, food processors and retailers. Government, of course, is also an important part of the partnership.

"And the commitment to food safety as a national priority comes from the very top of this administration. President Obama wants the government to be a strong partner in the effort to combat foodborne illness.

"Because when food is safe we all win. Americans can feed themselves, their families and others with the confidence that food won't make them sick. Businesses—large and small—can thrive on that confidence. And when businesses thrive, our economy, the nation and the world benefit.

"At USDA, our Food Safety and Inspection Service, or FSIS, is part of the public health mission. They are responsible for inspecting the nation's meat, poultry and egg products to make sure they meet our food safety standards.

"And that's why I'm here today: to talk about what USDA has done, is doing, and will do to improve food safety in America – to talk about the 4 areas where we are stronger food safety partners today than ever before.

A Presidential Commitment

"As I said, the Obama administration commitment to food safety comes from the top. During his first 100 days in office, the President created the Food Safety Working Group, tasking Secretary Sebelius of Health and Human Services and me with leading efforts to improve America's food safety system.

"Following the President's leadership, Congress worked to pass the most comprehensive reform of our nation's food safety laws in decades – giving FDA the resources, authority and tools they need to make real improvements to our food safety system.

"Perhaps most importantly, the Food Safety Working Group laid out a set of recommendations about steps to improve the public health. And they proposed the governing principle for our approach to food safety: prevention."

The Key to Food Safety is Prevention

For far too long, players in the food safety system reacted to problems. Responded to outbreaks. Or took bold action only after public health was at risk.

Today, USDA and our partners are working together, more than ever before, to improve and modernize the food safety system based on prevention.

It is our duty to make sure that producers provide safe food. And keeping hazards and dangerous pathogens out of the food supply is our first line of defense. If we are more effective at this critical first step, we have less to worry about later.

And so – during the past two and a half years – we've taken important steps forward to re-focus food safety on prevention.

One example is the implementation of a 'test and hold' policy. It's pretty simple really. When FSIS tests for adulterants in any of the meat we regulate, that product should not enter the food supply until we know the test results. This is a commonsense policy that food safety stakeholders across the spectrum agree on and that we are looking forward to implementing later this year.

We've also looking at ready-to-eat meat and poultry products. We've improved compliance guidelines to help prevent pathogens from being introduced to products after they have undergone processing.

The Tools to Get Us There

But prevention is mere a powerful idea until it is put into action. That is why USDA's second guiding food safety principle is making sure we are using the best tools in the businesses to protect the public.

That means regulations that make sense for modern food safety and policies that put people and their health first.

For poultry, we've established new, tougher performance standards for Salmonella and, for the first time, set standards for Campylobacter. Establishments that fail to meet our new standards will have their names published and undergo a more intensified inspection by FSIS.

And we will see real results. These pathogens are two of the most common bacterial causes of foodborne illness. We estimate these new standards will prevent a total of about 25,000 illnesses each year.

For red meat, we are making improvements to our sampling and laboratory testing programs and are sampling a broader range of materials that go into ground beef. And we've looked even further up the chain.

In a farm-to-fork food system, not only is humane handling of animals the right thing to do – healthy animals can help make for safer food. So we've worked to make humane handling oversight and enforcement stronger and more consistent. We've banned all slaughter of non-ambulatory cattle for use in human food, and developed hands-on, practical training on humane handling.

This is all part of our effort to get in front of dangerous pathogens. It makes prevention a priority, an incentive, for industry. And very importantly, these changes are based on the latest data.

Another tool we are using to reduce illnesses from ground beef is tracing adulterants to the source – the very point of contamination. The better we are at this, the more effectively we can prevent these products from entering the food supply.

Ground beef follows a long and complex processing chain, and we need a better system for tracing back contaminated product in that chain quickly. Until October of last year, FSIS waited until after there was a positive E. coli result to get details on a product. Now, FSIS requires inspectors to record information about the supplier and the source of that beef when they take samples of trim and ground beef for E. coli testing.

But we have more to do in this area. I've directed FSIS to develop a new policy that looks at how we can change our actions after we find a product that tests positive for O157.

In 90 days, I expect the agency to announce the first step in transforming our traceback policy. I've also instructed FSIS to complete a pilot study on new technologies and sampling methods that help us test ground beef and trim more quickly and efficiently. If we hold industry accountable for safe food, then our tests and sampling methods must be the best available.

Science, Data, Research, Technology

And that brings me to our third principle at USDA. To build a modern public health system, we need science and research that meet the evolving needs of the farm-to-fork system.

You all have been responsible for many of the strides that food safety research has taken over the past decades – and understand how they have led to safer food in this country and across the world.

At USDA we are actively involved in this research. Food safety scientists and researchers at our Agricultural Research Service – some of them here today –work on a diverse set of food safety issues in more than a dozen states.

I know this conference has focused on discussing latest findings and outcomes from around the globe – including ARS research – so I won't go into too much detail about all that we are working on. But know that we are proud of recent work that patented new technology that protects pasteurized liquid eggs, work that looked at the safety of beef trim imports and efforts that led to the publication of the first draft genomes of six STEC non-O157 strains of E. coli.

And, as part of our commitment to partnering with other players in the food safety community, we work hard to translate findings to real-world results for both government and the private sector.

Of course, USDA also funds external research. Our National Institute of Food and Agriculture –NIFA – has made food safety research one of their top priorities. And last year, we funded more than $70 million for food safety research, education and extension projects.

Many you in the IAFP are aware of NIFA's role, or might have even received funding from USDA at one point or another. And next year, Isabel Walls – who is NIFA's National Program Leader for Food Safety – will serve as IAFP President.

And our commitment to food safety research will stay strong. Today I am pleased to announce a major NIFA grant – worth $25 million – to North Carolina State University to study human Noroviruses across the food supply chain. This work will be led by none other than Lee-Ann Jaykus, IAFP's current President.

Lee-Ann – congratulations – we hope this study will help us understand how these viruses are transmitted and survive in food, and ultimately strengthen our efforts to control them.

But these viruses are just one area of food safety research which demand more study. And we are hopeful that this grant – as well as a new Norovirus work group in our USDA National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Foods – will help raise the awareness of the serious threat these viruses pose to public health.

Better Communication

The fourth and final food safety principle USDA has embraced is better communication – both internally, with partners, and with the American public.

Through the Food Safety Working Group, we are looking to close gaps and make sure the whole federal government is working together on this food safety. We implemented a new incident command system to address outbreaks of foodborne illness linking federal agencies – as well as state and local governments – to make sure we are communicating and making the best decisions when health threats emerge.

Internally, at FSIS, we are looking at better using all the information we have available to analyze risks and communicate within our network of inspectors.

This year, FSIS launched an improved data system to truly move us into the 21st century. The Public Health Information System is an easily accessible, up-to-date repository for all key data. Data about public health trends... about food safety violations...about what's happening across the country at the nearly 6,100 plants we regulate.

For staff in our Washington DC headquarters – and just as importantly – for our thousands of inspection personnel in production facilities across the country, this system is improving our capacity to analyze data to spot trouble and provide feedback about emerging public health threats.

When the system is fully implemented, it will allow us to access information from other public health agencies, to identify risks and trends before they harm the public, and to make decisions to protect consumers from unsafe food.

And finally, we are improving our external communication efforts.

We know that even as we work to prevent harmful adulterants from entering the food supply, the risk of foodborne illnesses may never be zero. That is why we feel it is also our responsibility to give consumers the information they need to prepare food safely.

We've made a number of advances on this front. To make sure consumers understand what they're buying in the store, we have updated what they read on food packages. Just last month we announced efforts to help ensure labels are kept accurate and current to reflect all undeclared allergens – some of which can be life-threatening.

We have also gone back to a long-ignored effort to require nutrition labeling on major cuts of meat and poultry products and published a final rule that will implement at the start of 2012. And we just proposed better labels for raw meat and poultry with added solutions.

At the same time, we've stepped up our food safety education efforts. We are using innovative practices to reach kids and parents, like our hands-on, traveling exhibit – the Food Safety Discovery Zone. And we are using social media tools – like Twitter and a smart-phone 'app' – to get folks up-to-the minute updates on recalls.

And in the months ahead, we will be able to educate more Americans than we ever have before through a nationwide, multi-media, bilingual food safety campaign that reached 20 million Americans in its first week alone.

The ads – which we helped put together with the Ad Council, and other federal and non-profit partners – provide clear and concise information on how families can better protect themselves from foodborne illness. The ads are focused on educating consumers, especially parents, to take specific actions to reduce their personal risk by making 'clean, separate, cook, and chill' part of their daily food preparation routine.

If you haven't seen these advertisements yet I urge you to go take a look online at foodsafety.gov. They are memorable and effective. And they are appearing on television and radio, in print, and in a grocery store near you.

More Work to Do

Non-O157

That is a brief outline of some of the major steps we've taken to build a safer food system in the United States, but we know there's more work to do.

There's more work to do because pathogens do not disappear once we figure them out; they adapt and evolve. In order to continue to meet the challenge they present in our food supply; we must adapt and evolve.

That's why today, I'd like to talk a little about dangerous E. coli in beef.

I know that many of you are experts in this subject. E. coli – of course – can cause severe illness and even death. The most notorious among them is E. coli O157:H7 – which has been declared an adulterant for over a decade in America.

But, we know that non-O157 STEC can cause harm, and even death, to consumers.

In fact, the six most common non-O157 STEC identified by CDC account for more than 80 percent of clinical strains that we see in the United States.

FSIS, together with FDA and CDC, have kept an eye on non-O157 STEC for several years. We've engaged food safety stakeholders at public meetings about how to best protect the public from these pathogens… USDA has developed the tests for them – an important tool that we didn't have when we launched our O157 testing program. And today we have leaders in the meat industry that have taken these tests and implemented them in their establishments.

But we want to do more on the non-O157 STEC.

So this January, we took an important step and submitted a draft policy to the White House Office of Management and Budget on this issue. They are actively working with us to move this through the process and finalize a policy that is supported by the best science. And I am hopeful we'll be able to announce more progress.

I know that it has taken some time – much to the frustration of many in this room, those in Congress, and most importantly…the American public. But, by taking this issue seriously, the scientific, advocacy and government communities have created the atmosphere so that when we do announce a new policy to protect consumers from non O157 STECs, everyone from the government to the industry will be ready to implement.

Work on HACCP

Of course, protecting the public health means a true partnership on food safety. And we wouldn't be where we are today without incredible partners in the scientific community, the non-profit and advocacy world, and industry.

There are some folks in this room who represent food processors and other corporations on the cutting edge – and have taken steps above and beyond what government considers mandatory.

We thank you for this good work: for taking steps to make food safer because the research says so… because your bottom line says so… or just because it's the right thing to do.

And USDA is working to support folks making these efforts.

We are expanding a program to encourage innovation focused on continuing to reduce Salmonella in raw poultry products – the Salmonella Initiative Program. This partnership with industry allows establishments to try out new procedures, equipment or processing techniques. And it provides us with data on levels of contamination at establishments which will shape our policies and inspection procedures in the long run.

And moving forward, we are looking at ways to help processors ensure they are doing right by their own plans.

We are looking at HACCP validation – put simply – making sure that food safety plans can work in theory, and do work in practice.

Last year, FSIS issued a draft of guidance to help plants validate their food safety, or HACCP, plans. We think this guidance will help establishments – especially small and very small establishments – with practical advice they can use to verify that they're meeting the food safety standards we've set for them.

Why? Because we believe that when more establishments can actually prove that their HACCP plans are working – when they can show it through in-plant observations, or data, or measurements – that there will be less contamination of products in the plant.

We have received comments on the draft guidance, and expect to publish an updated version within the next few months.

But we're not only looking at what industry can do under HACCP to better protect public health, we're examining what we can do. We want to take the lessons learned over the 15 years of experience with HACCP and apply those lessons to improve the system.

After all, HACCP is the very foundation of our current inspection system. We need to make certain that it meets modern expectations. So I've directed FSIS to develop a package of administrative actions that do just that. I know that the meat and poultry industry wants and needs this type of clarity to our HACCP regulations.

And there's also another opportunity for our nation's farmers and ranchers to support and be engaged in our efforts to protect public health: pre-harvest food safety.

Let me be clear, USDA is not looking to nor interested in expanding our jurisdiction on the farm.

But pathogens know no organizational jurisdictions or physical boundaries. To truly improve food safety – to fight pathogens at every critical point before they reach consumers – will take a true farm-to-fork effort to combat them. And we will all have to work together to get it done.

In that spirit, USDA will launch a series of workshops to engage livestock and poultry producers, produce growers, scientists and other stakeholders in a dialogue to identify the best way to use pre-harvest practices to reduce foodborne illness.

And we are working to promote the same engagement and spirit among our own food safety inspectors. Since her very first week on the job, Under Secretary Hagen – who leads FSIS – has worked to support nearly 10,000 food safety employees by conducting town hall meetings… enhancing training programs… launching new programs to help inspectors who are injured… and improving processes that help employees be and do their best on the job.

We want everyone at USDA who is focused on food safety – from scientists, to policy-makers, to inspectors – to be part of one team, with one purpose: to protect public health.