Vilsack cites progress, addresses N.Y. Times story

by Bryan Salvage
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WASHINGTON — In commenting on a recently published New York Times front-page story (E. Coli Path Shows Flaws in Beef Inspection) on perceived flaws in the F.S.I.S. meat inspection system, which was blamed in part for severe illnesses caused by an E. coli O157:H7 ground beef outbreak in 2007, Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture, said, "We can and should do more to protect the safety of the American people and the story in this weekend's paper will continue to spur our efforts to reduce the incidence of E. coli O157:H7."

Mr. Vilsack said in a statement addressing this story that U.S.D.A. has been aggressive in its efforts to improve food safety since President Obama took office and has been an active partner in establishing and contributing to President Obama's Food Safety Working Group.

"Protecting public health is the sole mission of the U.S.D.A. Food Safety and Inspection Service," Mr. Vilsack said. "F.S.I.S. has continued to make improvements to reduce the presence of E. coli O157:H7 and the agency is committed to working to reduce the incidence of foodborne illnesses caused by this pathogen."

After assuming the presidency, the Obama Administration created a Food Safety Working Group to coordinate food-safety policies, focus greater resources on prevention and improve response to outbreaks, he continued.

Mr. Vilsack said the following actions have since been taken as part of the F.S.W.G.

  • Launched an initiative to cut down E. coli contamination (including, in particular, contamination from E. coli O157:H7) and as part of that initiative, stepped-up meat-facility inspections involving greater use of sampling to monitor the products going into ground beef;
  • Appointed a chief medical officer within U.S.D.A.'s Food Safety Inspection Service to reaffirm its role as a public health agency;
  • Issued draft guidelines for industry to further reduce the risk of O157 contamination;
  • Started testing additional components of ground beef, including bench trim, and issuing new instructions to F.S.I.S. employees asking that they verify that plants follow sanitary practices in processing beef carcasses; and
  • Designed the Public Health Information System in response to lessons learned in past outbreaks.

U.S.D.A. is also looking at how to enhance traceback methods and plans to initiate rulemaking in the near future to require all grinders, including establishments and retail stores, to keep accurate records of the sources of each lot of ground beef, Mr. Vilsack said.

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