ORLANDO, Fla. -- Michael R. Taylor, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's acting undersecretary for food safety, said the nation's food safety programs must be improved, and to that end, he said, the government is focusing on three specific areas.
During a keynote address at the National Turkey Federation Conference held here two weeks ago, Taylor, who is also administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service, said the public expects a safe food supply.
"While food-borne illness is not new, public concern about food safety is on the rise," said Taylor.
He added that through new and ongoing programs, the Food Safety and Inspection Service is working to increase food safety. Its objectives are:
To make better use of science and microbiological tools to reduce and eliminate pathogens, rather than indirectly address the problem via current visible inspection methods.
Clarify the responsibilities of the meat and poultry industry and the FSIS inspection program.
Improve prevention programs for food safety.
"The current system relies too heavily on FSIS inspectors to detect and correct problems after they occur," said Taylor.
As previously reported, FSIS is developing a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point plan for the meat and poultry industries that is expected to be introduced soon. The plan would set allowable standards for pathogens at the production level and create guidelines and controls at every stage in production at which contamination could occur.
While there is new emphasis on the early stage of production, Taylor said the HACCP program will not extend to the retail level. Although, he stressed, FSIS will continue to work with state and
local authorities to maintain proper health and food safety programs at retail.
A random sampling program to detect the presence of E.coli 0157:H7 in ground beef, begun in October, is continuing, said Taylor. FSIS is expected to collect 5,000 samples from U.S. supermarkets each year. To date, some 900 samples have been collected, none positive. However, in a separate program, Florida Department of Agriculture inspectors discovered contaminated products at a Lakeland, Fla., supermarket, which triggered a recall.
Taylor said, "When people have doubts about whether the foods they purchase are as safe as they can be, they have enormously effective tools for holding us all accountable." "The public," he said, "casts its vote every day in the market place when potential customers choose between your products and the many others available to them."
During his address, Taylor also announced the creation of a new division within the FSIS that will extend food safety programs to the farm.
Taylor named Bonnie Buntain, who is a veterinarian, director of the new department, which is being called the Animal Production (Preharvest) Food Safety Program. Buntain was previously with USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
"While our regulatory authority focuses on federally inspected plants, we must be prepared to address food safety risks all along the food production and marketing chain -- not just in the plant environment," said Taylor, explaining the need for the increased emphasis on pathogen reduction programs early in the production chain.
Prior to last year's reorganization of the USDA, which consolidated all of the department's food safety programs under the undersecretary for food safety, a preharvest food safety program had been operated at the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
Under FSIS, the new division will have a more directed public health focus, said an FSIS official.
Taylor said the new FSIS preharvest food safety program will work with scientists and animal producers to find ways, from the farm to the slaughter plant, to improve safety.
The program will specifically target pathogenic microorganisms such as E. coli 0157:H7 and salmonella, which can infect livestock and poultry, and cause food-borne illness.
Taylor said Buntain would provide "critical leadership and continuity as we pursue USDA's farm-to-table approach to improving food safety. Dr. Buntain brings to her new post valuable scientific expertise and strong working relationships with the producer community," he added.
Buntain said, "To provide American consumers with the safest food supply possible, we will expand cooperative efforts with all organizations involved."