Strength in Numbers

by Bryan Salvage
Share This:
Public health experts say the FSIS-CDC partnership will result in a more comprehensive and multidisciplinary approach to foodborne illness investigations.

Resolving foodborne disease outbreaks depends on timely detection and traceability. Industry insiders have long believed that whenever investigating a foodborne disease outbreak, it would be far more effective to use a team approach incorporating agency experts working together as opposed to agencies working independently on such matters.

In recognition of strength in numbers, the US Dept. of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) announced in mid-May they had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that is intended to provide a more comprehensive, multidisciplinary approach to address foodborne health hazards associated with meat, poultry and processed egg products.

As part of the One Health initiative – a concept that inextricably links the health of humans, animals and the environment – the MOU recognizes a disease impacting the human and animal health plus the environment can be successfully addressed through improved communication, cooperation and collaboration across disciplines and institutions.

“The FSIS investigation process identifies health hazards in meat and poultry products, and this agreement leverages the expertise of personnel from [CDC] and the [ATSDR] to complement that process,” said Al Almanza, FSIS administrator, in announcing the partnership. Almanza was appointed administrator of the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service on May 6, 2010. He leads FSIS and its more than 9,500 employees in their mission to protect public health through food safety and food defense. Almanza has held a variety of positions during his more than 30 years with FSIS.

Al Almanza, FSIS administrator

The MOU outlines mutual roles and responsibilities for training personnel and the planning of interagency assessment of FSIS-regulated establishments as part of foodborne-illness investigations and health-hazard evaluations. This MOU, however, does not modify any existing interagency collaborative work, which includes illness cluster and outbreak investigations.

As part of the MOU, FSIS personnel have completed training selected epidemiologists, environmental health scientists and other subject matter experts within the ATSDR, the National Center for Environmental Health and the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases. The training focused on FSIS statutes, regulations and investigation process and included an in-plant food-safety assessment. Following the implementation of the MOU, the trained CDC/ATSDR personnel will be available to assist FSIS in the interpretation of epidemiological data to identify the possible causes of contamination.

How it all began

FSIS officials say the foundation for the partnership dates back more than four years. On March 31, 2010, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack signed a memo establishing the USDA One Health initiative that would be headed by the Undersecretary for Food Safety and the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs.

“The Undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics was later added to this oversight group,” FSIS agency officials said. “Since then, this program has grown immensely in the Department, with the formation of the USDA One Health Joint Working Group [OHJWG] and the FSIS One Health Working Group. Using the One Health concept, an FSIS senior leader in the Office of Public Health Science presented to the USDA Chief Medical Officer the idea of partnering with the CDC for a comprehensive and multidisciplinary approach to address foodborne health hazards associated with meat, poultry and processed egg products. This was presented to the leadership of CDC/ATSDR, who agreed to the collaboration.”

“The FSIS investigation process identifies health hazards in meat and poultry products, and this agreement leverages the expertise of personnel from [CDC] and the [ATSDR] to complement that process.” – Al Almanza, FSIS administrator.

It has taken a little more than one year from discussion of the concept to the signing and implementation of the MOU. When asked about responses FSIS has received thus far from the US meat and poultry industry and consumer groups on the signing of the MOU, the FSIS officials replied, “Responses so far from all groups have been very positive.”

The stated roles and responsibilities give a clear way forward for the training and inclusion of CDC and ATSDR subject matter experts in health-hazard assessments, the FSIS officials report. “Adding these public health professionals will result in a more comprehensive and multidisciplinary approach to foodborne illness investigations and health-hazard assessments associated with meat and poultry,” they add.

Highlights of MOU-related training for the in-plant food-safety assessments were designed to bring a fresh perspective to the process.

“After the MOU was officially approved by both parties, CDC/ATSDR identified individuals who would be activated when called upon to support the MOU,” the FSIS officials said. “These individuals were then trained and certified by FSIS to perform any necessary tasks if and when they are embedded with the FSIS team involved with investigation of an in-plant adverse health hazard finding. The trained CDC/ATSDR personnel will bring fresh eyes and a different perspective to any in-plant investigation/review. This will assist both the industry and public in eliminating any unseen hazards quicker.”

CDC and FSIS work together on foodborne-outbreak investigations. The MOU enhances the agencies' ability to collect timely traceability information.

What are the major goals FSIS hopes this MOU will accomplish? What will this partnership mean for US meat, poultry and egg processors and their customers in the future?

“The addition of CDC and ATSDR subject matter experts will result in a more comprehensive and multidisciplinary approach to foodborne illness investigations and health hazard assessments associated with meat and poultry, and enhance our collective ability to identify and address food safety hazards,” the FSIS officials answered.

Moving forward

As with anything, there are challenges, the FSIS officials said of ensuring this MOU is successful. “But with the collaborative efforts involved with this MOU, FSIS anticipates that it will yield successful results. Dr. Kristin Holt, FSIS Liaison to CDC, is overseeing the MOU on the FSIS side, and we are very confident in her abilities to lead this initiative,” they added.

“Our agencies work together on foodborne-outbreak investigations to identify the source of illnesses and conduct epidemiologic studies,” said Robin Ikeda, deputy director of CDC’s Office of Noncommunicable Diseases, Injury and Environmental Health. “This memorandum will enhance opportunities for us to participate in assessments of FSIS-regulated establishments and other health-hazards evaluations.”

“This agreement builds on the current working relationship between our agencies with respect to food safety, said Beth Bell, MD, MPH, acting director of CDC’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases. The partnership “reaffirms our mutual commitment to a multidisciplinary approach to conducting foodborne disease investigations,” she said.

Comment on this Article
We welcome your thoughtful comments. Please comply with our Community rules.








The views expressed in the comments section of Meat and Poultry News do not reflect those of Meat and Poultry News or its parent company, Sosland Publishing Co., Kansas City, Mo. Concern regarding a specific comment may be registered with the Editor by clicking the Report Abuse link.