Hagen: Making prevention a collective goal

by Bryan Salvage
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CHICAGO – Preventing illness through safe food is a major focus of the US Dept. of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, under secretary for food safety, told attendees of the North American Meat Processors Association’s 2011 Meat Industry Management Conference recently held in Chicago. And FSIS needs industry’s help to achieve that goal.

Pathogens exist throughout the food chain, Hagen stressed. “We must fight them together. If we don’t, how can we fight them at all?” she asked.

Hagen said she was glad to see the new guidance Beef Industry Food Safety Council (BIFSCo) released on sampling, lotting and testing ground beef. “BIFSCo and this conference are the kinds of collaborative effort it’s going to take to improve food safety,” she said. “We’ve got to share what we know about producing the safest food possible. All of us — regulators and industry — have got to ask, ‘What works? What doesn’t? What’s feasible, and what’s not?’”

Protecting public health is most important to FSIS. “There are still far too many people getting sick from the food they eat — 48 million too many,” Hagen said. “We have to do better. And that goes for all of us, regulators and industry alike.”

The way to build the most the most trusted food-safety brand in the world is by focusing on prevention, she iterated. Enhancing food safety must be more than just checking a box or completing procedures.

“We have to sample and test for pathogens; we have to validate food-safety processes; we have to put science-based policies and interventions into action to ensure safe food,” Hagen said. “But all of our work in food safety has a singular goal: preventing foodborne illness.”

Hagen said industry and government working together have an opportunity to improve food safety.

“Producing safe food is your responsibility,” she said. “Ensuring the safety of that food is USDA’s responsibility. So what the agency and other regulators are doing is retooling for the future with regulations that make sense for our modern food.

Steps can be taken, practices can be promoted and policies can be enacted to reduce pathogens,” Hagen said.
In the 1990s, FSIS announced the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) final rule. Indeed, HACCP is the foundation for the entire food safety system.

Much has been learned in the past 15 years under this system; some successes were achieved. Since 1996, E. coli O157:H7 illnesses have been reduced by about 41%. In 2009, the US even met the national Healthy People 2010 target for this pathogen. HACCP went a long way in improving America’s food safety brand.

“However, as I’ve said before, too many people are still getting sick and dying from foodborne illness,” she said. “We have more work to do.”

“We understand we can’t simply test our way to food safety,” Hagen said. “Testing can reveal problems in the production process and help trace back and recall contaminated product, but it can’t prevent contamination.”

There are other policy steps FSIS can take that can help industry and the agency use HACCP to its fullest potential. “One is to ensure that when FSIS tests for contaminants like STECs (Shiga-toxin producing E. coli) in meat that product does not enter the food supply until we know what the test results show,” Hagen said. “This is a common-sense policy food-safety stakeholders across the spectrum agree on. And it’s one USDA is working to address.”
Another piece of FSIS policies toward STECs in ground beef is tracing them to the source — the point of contamination — when they enter the food supply.

“We need a better system for tracing back contaminated product in [the ground beef] chain, and for understanding why and how the contamination occurred in the first place,” she added. “We are currently asking how FSIS can improve its approach to traceback. I’ve already received great suggestions from a few of you and welcome more ideas and thoughts.”

FSIS has already taken a first step to improve its traceback policy. Until October of last year, FSIS collected supplier information — details on where those products came from — but only after there was a positive E. coli result.

“Now, we require inspectors to record information about the supplier and the source of that beef, at the very time they take samples of trim and ground beef for E. coli testing,” Hagen said. “But that was only one step. We’re considering what other ways we can use that valuable information from our testing program to make smarter decisions that protect public health—[being more proactive than reactive].”

In 2010, USDA issued draft guidelines on HACCP validation. Validation is not a new regulation or a new policy, Hagen pointed out. It’s something that USDA has always expected under HACCP: that a food-safety plan can work in theory, and does work in practice.

“But after several years, we heard enough questions, found enough lack of understanding about HACCP validation, and saw enough of the food-safety problems that it caused, that we had to clarify it,” Hagen said. “It’s something that those of you in the meat industry asked us to do. You can be sure that if USDA has resources, information or recommendations to help you produce safer food, we’ll share it. Our job is not to make regulations more burdensome; it’s to make them clear…to make them work the way they were designed: to ensure you can make the safest food possible. That’s what the validation guidance is intended to do.”

There has been concern voiced about that guidance. “We’ve heard from stakeholders across the spectrum on the draft document, and we’re reviewing that input carefully to issue a better version in the future,” Hagen said.

“If we want to make food safer and protect public health, we must start asking how to address pathogens the way they occur, throughout the food system,” Hagen continued. “We know that the condition of animals at slaughter, the contamination rates on their hides and elsewhere, impact the ability of the rest of the system to handle the risk.”

There can be no sacred cow when discussing food safety and pre-harvest food practices have got to be a part of the discussion. “I do not want, nor am I looking to expand, FSIS’ jurisdiction beyond slaughter, that is neither helpful nor productive,” Hagen said. “But I am looking to work with other USDA agencies to start a dialogue between producers, processors, regulators, and other stakeholders.....So, when we have the opportunity, USDA is going to promote those on-farm practices that we know can reduce the risk of contamination.”

This is why in 2010 FSIS released a draft guidance to provide beef slaughter establishments with information on pre-harvest management controls that can help reduce E. coli O157:H7 shedding in cattle, Hagen said. And that’s why in the coming months USDA will begin a dialogue with stakeholders — farm-to-fork about food-safety improvements through pre-harvest practices.

FSIS’ new Public Health Information System (PHIS) will provide inspectors with a tool to document everything they observe — not just what’s wrong. It will give them a complete, comprehensive picture of food safety in plants. And the data they collect will give those at headquarters a near real-time view of what’s happening in the field.

“That data, in turn, will help us make smarter decisions to prevent illnesses and protect public health. It’s another way to build trust in our food-safety brand,” Hagen said. “PHIS will take a paper-based, 20th century inspection system and turn it into a dynamic tool that identifies risks and trends before they harm the public — all because of data. It will improve our ability to stay a step ahead of the latest threats to public health.”

Last week, the first phase of PHIS training for FSIS frontline inspectors in locations around the country began. “We’re really excited about this,” Hagen said. “In the last century, we reacted to food-safety problems. In this one, we’ll be vigilant to prevent them.”
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