WASHINGTON – In her first speech as the new undersecretary for food safety, Dr. Elisabeth Hagen discussed the U.S. Department of Agriculture's plan to improve food-safety efforts on behalf of consumers at the National Food Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 23.

“To me, there's no more fundamental function of government than to keep its people safe from harm,” she said. “That holds true whether we're safeguarding personal rights or the public good. And that's what's at the heart of our food-safety mission at U.S.D.A. – keeping Americans safe from harm. My job, and the job of more than 9,000 employees in the Food Safety and Inspection Service (F.S.I.S.), is to protect public health through food safety. That's a pretty powerful mandate.”

Dr. Hagen said a safe food supply gives U.S. trading partners confidence in its food-safety system plus it contributes to a healthy, vibrant U.S. economy by supporting farmers and ranchers, food producers and processors. “And so our mission, our goal in U.S.D.A.'s Office of Food Safety, is protecting the health of more than 300 million Americans,” she added.

Too many people are at risk of getting sick from the food they eat, Dr. Hagen said.

“So, until we reduce that risk to zero, we have more work to do at U.S.D.A.,” Dr. Hagen said. “Calls for food-safety reform have come from every angle-from members of Congress…to members of the media. We hear you.”

Dr. Hagen then covered three areas to be the focus of the agency’s food-safety programs in the near future. “First, is prevention – it has got to be the foundation of everything we do,” she said. “Next, are having the right tools to do our job. And finally, people…and why all of this matters.”

The current food-safety system relies too much on reacting to problems to make people safe, she said. “At F.S.I.S., the leadership recognized this. And for many years the agency has steadily moved toward a more proactive approach to food safety,” she added.

The agency has policies that aim to prevent contamination, and industry has been largely successful at implementing them, she continued. “Together, F.S.I.S. and industry have adapted processes at establishments that make recalls the exception, and not the rule,” Dr. Hagen said.

But the system isn't perfect or foolproof, she added. “And in our business of protecting public health, there's no room for error,” she said.

F.S.I.S. has evolved to become more preventative, more public-health oriented…even within the constraints of the existing framework, Dr. Hagen said. “F.S.I.S. wasn't always a public health agency,” she said. “Until 1994, U.S.D.A. grouped the agency responsible for food inspection with the agencies responsible for marketing.

In 1994, the Department of Agriculture Reorganization Act established an Undersecretary for Food Safety. “And F.S.I.S. continued to evolve into what it is today: an agency that is working hard to get to a truly preventative system,” she said.

“We have many challenges I'm eager to tackle with the leadership of F.S.I.S.…with its more than 6,300 inspectors…with the veterinarians and scientists and policy experts and food safety professionals who make up the F.S.I.S. workforce,” she continued.

Some challenges include: Pathogens that are not addressed by current policies. For example, at U.S.D.A., there is a zero-tolerance policy for the most well-known STEC, O157; aligning traceback efforts with prevention goals; enforcing laws regulating the animal welfare of livestock used in the food supply chain; focusing on prevention in the name of public health as the goal of regulations and agency actions; establish and monitor a system of measurement to gauge how effective food safety efforts are; and assessing the continued application of H.A.C.C.P. programs in the food production industry.

“People are why all this matters,” Dr. Hagen said. “We're doing this work in food safety to serve real people, real families, to keep Americans the healthiest they can be. I've asked the F.S.I.S. workforce to always be mindful of that. To remember that whether they're inspecting products on the line; analyzing samples in the lab; if they're answering phones at a district office, or teaching kids about food safety, what they are really doing is protecting public health.

“This is our opportunity, our moment, to make food safety the public-health priority it should be. I pledge to work as hard as I can to seize that opportunity; and to make it a success. And I hope that you'll join me,” she concluded.