WASHINGTON – Although it can be improved, the U.S. meat and poultry regulatory and inspection system is working to ensure safe food, said Jim Hodges, American Meat Institute executive vice president, while recently addressing the Farm Foundation in Washington, D.C.

"A common refrain heard in Washington and other venues is the U.S. food-safety regulatory system is broken and that it has failed the American people. There is some truth to that argument, but a closer look at our meat and poultry food-safety systems may yield a different conclusion," Mr. Hodges said.

Foodborne illnesses associated with meat and poultry consumption have declined markedly, he said, given that 1 billion meals are consumed safely each day in the U.S. Human-illness statistics published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show the pathogens most commonly associated with meat and poultry make up only a fraction of the total foodborne illnesses and deaths in the U.S., he noted.

"I cite these illness statistics.... to put the risk into context," he said. "Is the sky falling? No. Still, most rational individuals, including myself, believe food safety can be improved."

U.S.D.A.’s meat and poultry inspection system, run by the Food Safety and Inspection Service, is strong with 8,000 inspectors overseeing approximately 6,300 domestic meat and poultry operations, Mr. Hodges said. Plants processing animals are inspected during all hours the plant is operating. Plants preparing meat and poultry products are inspected at least daily. An additional 2,000 federal employees provide supervision and support services at a total cost of more than $1 billion dollars.

Steps Mr. Hodges believes can enhance food safety include:

 A focus on government inspection programs designed and implemented to protect public health.

 Continual improvement of preventive process-control systems is needed.

 Government agencies must be fully funded to assure the safety of domestically produced and imported food is maintained.

 Resource allocation should be based on the public health risk posed by a particular food and the control measures that are used during the manufacturing and distribution process to control such risk.

 Objective, achievable food-safety standards scientifically determined to measure whether the food is safe, not adulterated and non-injurious to public health, are needed.

 During the standard-setting process, the U.S. must assure compatibility with internationally recognized standards such as Codex Alimentarius to protect the health of consumers, ensure fair trade practices and promote coordination of food-standards development by the international community.

 Efforts should be focused on conducting a more through analysis to identify how and why a foodborne disease outbreak occurred.

 Rigorous government inspection and testing is needed to verify that consumer-ready products are safe.

 Establish a public/private partnership to design and implement a comprehensive research program to improve food safety is needed.

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