Al Almanza, recently promoted to Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety, provided updates on several FSIS initiatives aimed at reducing foodborne illnesses.

CHICAGO – Al Almanza, administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) at the US Department of Agriculture and USDA’s recently named Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety, addressed a crowded room during the North American Meat Association’s (NAMA) annual Beef Safety Conference on Oct. 15. While the focus on this year’s program is “Pathogen Control and Regulatory Compliance in Beef Processing”, he updated the crowd on FSIS actions regarding poultry slaughter, grinding logs/tracebacks, STEC testing, mechanically tenderized beef, consumer education and HACCP validation.

“This year, our focus has truly been on modernizing food safety, doing what makes sense, and recognizing the need for strong, science-based food-safety standards supported by sound risk assessments,” he said. “And we will continue to do that as we move into 2015 and beyond.”

In addressing the finalized poultry rule, Almanza said he’s happy to be moving forward on this, but there is still more work to be done. “The final rule has both mandatory and voluntary components for poultry facilities,” he added. “USDA is committed to working with poultry slaughter facility management, and our inspectors who work in their facilities, to ensure a smooth and effective implementation process.”
In July, FSIS announced its proposed rule to require that meat outlets keep clear records on sources for ground-beef products. These records would identify the source, supplier and names of all materials used in preparation of the raw ground-beef products.

“This would help improve traceback capabilities and prevent foodborne illness, which aligns with the goals of our Salmonella Action Plan released in December 2013,” Almanza said. “We want to focus on prevention tools that will have the most significant public health impact. This proposed rule would do that. And our Salmonella Action Plan, which is on our website, details steps FSIS can take to reduce Salmonella contamination in meat and poultry products.”

FSIS announced new, expedited traceback and traceforward procedures in August that will allow the agency to trace contaminated ground beef to its source more quickly by conducting immediate investigations at businesses whose ground beef tests positive for E. coli O157:H7 during initial testing and at suppliers that provided source materials.

“This is different because before we only began investigations at the grinding facility after a presumptive positive test result was confirmed, and then at the supplier facility even later than that, which costs a lot of valuable time,” Almanza told the crowd. “We need to remove unsafe product from commerce much faster and so these new procedures allow us to do that.”

Regarding Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) testing, Almanza said progress has been made on the agency’s analysis of the costs of STEC testing and they have assessed the costs of expanding testing to bench trim and ground beef. “That economic analysis will be sent to the Federal Register very soon and we’ll take public comment on it then,” Almanza said.

FSIS also hopes to move forward this year on finalizing the proposed rule for labeling beef products that have been mechanically tenderized. “As you know, we proposed this rule in the summer of 2013,” Almanza said, “to enhance food safety by providing clear labeling and adding new cooking instructions so consumers and restaurants can prepare these products safely.”

Research indicates the mechanical tenderization process many transfer pathogens from the outside of the meat into the meat, he added, which poses a greater risk to public health than intact beef products.
“It just makes sense that we educate consumers on this so they can cook this product safely,” Almanza said.

FSIS recently conducted research at Kansas State Univ. looking at consumer food-safety practices while cooking in a test kitchen. The study found cross-contamination is a serious problem in the home. “KSU is publishing the study in 2015, but we’re already using its preliminary findings to guide new food-safety ads emphasizing the separate and cook steps that the AdCouncil will be debuting this fall,” he added.

Almanza also said the guidance for HACCP systems validation is in clearance and that the agency hopes to announce it in the Federal Register in the near future. “This guidance will essentially lay out activities designed to determine whether the HACCP system, as a whole is functioning as intended,” he added.

These activities include validation of the critical control points in the HACCP plan and any interventions or processes used to support decisions in the hazard analysis. “Of course, by doing this, the likelihood for product contamination and illnesses can be reduced, which is what we are all striving for,” Almanza said.

At the end of the first day of the two-day Beef Safety Conference, Phil Kimball, CAE, NAMA executive director, reminded that this year’s program is the seventh consecutive Beef Safety Conference conducted. “In addition to providing updates on issues of importance to our members, it’s an excellent forum for give-and-take between USDA/FSIS and our members,” he said.