WASHINGTON – The US Department of Agriculture hosted a media teleconference earlier this afternoon to discuss new safeguards being put in place to protect consumers from foodborne illness. Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety, discussed changes being made to the Food Safety and Inspection Service's traceback policies, three key food-safety provisions required by the 2008 Farm Bill, as well as guidance to industry for HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) validation.

“One of the key goals of USDA and its public health agency, the FSIS, has been to strengthen our abilities to protect consumers from foodborne illness,” Hagen said. “Today, we’re announcing several measures that represent the next steps in doing just that by bolstering our prevention-based, public health safeguards.”

The need for effective and reliable traceback methods during the course of an outbreak, when people are already sick, is obvious, Hagen said. But FSIS has the opportunity through the course of its routine sampling work to take this reactive tool and use it more preventively, she added.

“Under the change in policy we’re announcing today, we intend to launch traceback investigations earlier and identify additional potentially contaminated products sooner when we may have a chance to prevent it from reaching consumers in the first place,” Hagen said.

FSIS will be focusing on the following key issues regarding traceback. “First, we will be going to begin our investigation before routine test results are confirmed positive,” she added. “Currently, FSIS activities begin after test results are confirmed or when an outbreak occurs.”

Second, FSIS will be working quickly to link indications of contamination through a sole source whenever possible and determine whether that source material was used by any other processors. “We will then expect companies to recall all common-source material and resulting products under those circumstances,” Hagen said.

Third, Hagen said FSIS will focus quickly on production conditions during the time of contamination at the plant and the plant’s approach to managing what FSIS calls high-event periods.

Traceback of raw beef products contaminated with Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STECs) will improve FSIS’ ability to prevent contaminated products from reaching consumers and to recall products faster, Hagen said.

Three, key food-safety provisions that are part of the Food Conservation and Energy Act of 2008, or the Farm Bill, were next covered by Hagen. Collectively, the provisions will require that all establishments notify FSIS within 24 hrs. of finding contaminated product in commerce; develop written recall procedures; and document the assessment of their HACCP food-safety plan. “These three Farm Bill provisions will improve food safety by adding stronger protection measure before and after products are produced,” Hagen said.

FSIS also announced it is providing a new draft guidance document for HACCP validation that can help food producers reduce and control foodborne pathogens in their meat and poultry products. This document is one more tool that can help companies verify that their food-safety efforts work in theory and [in actuality] Hagen said.

“To be clear, HACCP validation has been always been required under the HACCP final rule,” she added. “This is not a new requirement. However, what we are providing is guidance that relates to better ensuring the support underpinning that validation is consistent and relevant nationwide. We’ve also made a significant effort to get input on that draft guidance. We’ve reviewed comments we’ve had at public meetings, got more input, we revised the guidance and presented it to the National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection last year.

This latest draft guidance is a more useful, comprehensive document developed with valuable suggestions to industry, other stakeholders and from the national advisory committee, she continued.

“Taken as whole, the traceback policies, Farm Bill provisions and HACCP validation measures we’re announcing today will provide us with more tools to protect our food supplies and limit outbreaks, resulting in stronger public health protections for consumers,” Hagen said.

During the Q&A session, a reporter asked Hagen to confirm she earlier told USA Today the traceback steps proposed today would save 24-48 hours in investigative work.

“What we do now is act on the confirmatory stage in our testing regimen,” she said. “So we will be acting at the presumptive stage, this is during the course of our routine regulatory testing. So it saves FSIS a day possibly two days where we can get ahead of things in a way we’re not able to do now.”

When asked to clarify how USDA will know there’s enough of a problem to start traceback action, Hagen replied, “We put a new policy in place last year, a simple policy, but one that is really helping us a lot when inspectors take samples now. They will record the information about the supplier that could be involved in that sample so they already have that information at the time when something might begin to look like it’s a positive in our testing system. That was a major improvement we have been using for more than a year now.”

She then provided an example of how the traceback process will be sped up. “Inspectors have the information,” Hagen iterated. “They’re taking a sample of let’s say ground beef. They have the information about the sources of the material that was used to go into that ground beef at the time the sample is taken. There are several steps in our PCR-based testing process. We have a staging system where we can call it a potential positive, so we have enough signals that this may turn out to be a real confirmed E. coli positive test. We then have a presumptive positive stage in the testing system. And we have a confirmed positive stage.

“We’re really looking at our experience and how the industry operates, we’re looking at the data we've accumulated over the years -- enough to know that when we’re at a presumptive stage, that is a good time to start looking and doing traceback work,” she continued. “That, in combination with already having the materials, the data on hand about the suppliers, which is a change from what we used to do years ago, allows us to pick up that additional 24 to 48 hours. And when we’re talking about traceback, every minute counts.”

When asked how these changes will be implemented, Hagen said: “With the traceback portion, this is guidance for the industry about how we’re going to be doing things and how they might go about making sure their programs are effective. We will be taking comments on the traceback policy we’re putting out. The same thing applies regarding the HACCP validation...this is guidance and not a new set of requirements, not a regulation; we will also be taking comments on that. As far as the provisions for the Farm Bill, those three things are final rules.”