WASHINGTON – A new tool is now available that’s designed to help public health scientists protect consumers from pathogen-related risks in food and water. The tool, a Microbial Risk Assessment (MRA) Guideline, was jointly developed by the US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a public health collaborative project.

“This new tool will help public health scientists target pathogen-related risks and prevent them from harming the public,” USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Elisabeth Hagen said. “We will continue to enhance the tools at our disposal to keep pace with evolving pathogens in our environment with the ultimate goal of protecting the American public and the food supply.”

Pathogens in food, water, and the environment can result in acute gastrointestinal-related illnesses and some can have long-term and permanent health effects as well as fatalities, according to USDA. In addition, the source of pathogens is the same for water and food. Recognizing this, the MRA Guideline lays out an overarching approach for conducting meaningful assessments of the risks to consumers posed by pathogen exposure. MRA procedures discussed in the document follow a user-friendly, question-and-answer format that assists risk assessors in developing microbial risk assessments to meet agency-specific needs.

“This project contributes significantly to improving the quality and consistency in the way that participating federal agencies conduct microbial risk assessments, and provides greater transparency to stakeholders and other interested parties in how these agencies approach and conduct their microbial risk assessments,” said EPA Science Advisor Dr. Glenn Paulson. “Based on the success of this project, we are seeking further opportunities to combine our technical expertise in our continuing efforts to protect the public’s health.”

Formal risk assessments for food-, water-, and environmentally-relevant chemicals have been undertaken for decades; however, an overarching microbial risk assessment guideline has not been available until now. 

FSIS and EPA have posted the MRA Guideline on their respective web pages. The MRA Guideline is also available to download at www.regulations.gov.

The MRA Guideline is part of other public health measures FSIS has put in place to safeguard the food supply, prevent foodborne illness, and improve consumers' knowledge about the food they eat. These initiatives support the three core principles developed by the President's Food Safety Working Group: prioritizing prevention; strengthening surveillance and enforcement; and improving response and recovery. Some of these actions include:

• Test-and-hold policy that will significantly reduce consumer exposure to unsafe meat products, should the policy become final, because products cannot be released into commerce until Agency test results for dangerous contaminants are known.

• Labeling requirements that provide better information to consumers about their food by requiring nutrition information for single-ingredient raw meat and poultry products and ground or chopped products.

• Public Health Information System, a modernized, comprehensive database with information on public health trends and food safety violations at the nearly 6,100 plants FSIS regulates.

• Performance standards for poultry establishments for continued reductions in the occurrence of pathogens. After two years of enforcing the new standards, FSIS estimates that approximately 5,000 illnesses will be prevented each year under the new Campylobacter standards, and approximately 20,000 illnesses will be prevented under the revised Salmonella standards each year.