Federal Agencies Map a Better System
A joint FDA/Food Safety and Inspection Service meeting late last year is one of the recent steps taken to prevent foodborne illnesses.
- By Jerry Laws
- Feb 01, 2010
Food safety is getting renewed attention from
Congress and the two federal agencies chiefly
charged with safeguarding the nation's
food supply: the Food and Drug Administration
(FDA) and the Food Safety and Inspection
Service (FSIS) of the USDA.
The bill sent in December to the full U.S. Senate
for consideration is S. 510, the FDA Food Safety
Modernization Act, which would require each food
facility to identify and evaluate known or reasonably
foreseeable hazards of all types—biological, chemical,
physical, and radiological hazards, natural toxins,
pesticides, drug residues, decomposition, parasites,
allergens, and unapproved food and color additives,
as well as intentionally introduced hazards—and develop
a written analysis of those hazards.
In addition, facilities would have to implement
what the bill calls "preventive controls." It defines
these as "risk-based, reasonably appropriate procedures,
practices, and processes that a person knowledgeable
about the safe manufacturing, processing,
packing, or holding of food would employ to significantly minimize or prevent the hazards identified
under the hazard analysis . . . and that are consistent
with the current scientific understanding of safe
food manufacturing, processing, packing, or holding
at the time of the analysis." These may include
sanitation procedures for food contact surfaces and
utensils; supervisor, manager, and employee hygiene
training; an environmental monitoring program to
verify the effectiveness of pathogen controls in processes
where a food is exposed to a potential contaminant;
a food allergen control program; and a
The bill would require FDA to inspect all food facilities
more oft en, including inspecting "high risk"
facilities at least annually. FDA could order a mandatory
recall of a food product that would cause serious
adverse health consequences if the company has not
voluntarily recalled it.
As the bill was being advanced out of the Senate
Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee,
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and HHS Secretary
Kathleen Sebelius, who lead the parent agencies
of FSIS and FDA, respectively, joined FDA and FSIS
officials at a public meeting in Washington, D.C., in
Vilsack and Sebelius, who co-chair the Obama
administration's Food Safety Working Group,
thanked the Department of Homeland Security on
Dec. 9 for opening the Commercial Targeting and
Analysis Center for Import Safety, which the working
group had recommended. Located in Washington,
the center targets imported cargo of all kinds,
including food, for possible safety violations.
The larger goal of the meeting was to work out
closer FDA-FSIS cooperation.
Jerold Mande, USDA deputy under secretary for
food safety, opened the meeting by describing the
current U.S. system for tracing food products and
the difficulty of improving the systems, as the working
group has recommended.
"This problem, unfortunately, is difficult," he said.
"The CDC estimates that as many as 300,000 people
in the U.S. are hospitalized each year from foodborne
illnesses and millions become ill and don't even realize
that it is connected to tainted food. While this
forum will begin with product tracing as a comprehensive
task that will require cooperation and commitment
from both business and government to get
the job done, one area that you'll be hearing a lot
about is gaps at the retail level.
"Despite the dedicated efforts of food safety offi-
cials across the country, our capacity to trace tainted
products is seriously limited. Poor record keeping
and inadequate information about food sources,
ingredients or distribution—particularly at the retail
level—make tracing a cumbersome process and
make recalls less effective. With an effective tracing system, when an outbreak occurred—involving
ground beef for example—the
product that caused the outbreak would
be quickly identified, as would the retail
stores where consumers purchased the
product. The store would have the appropriate
records that show which processing
establishment produced the beef used in
the ground product. And then, we could
perform traceback and traceforward investigations.
"By doing so, we could make consumers
aware of what contaminated product
to avoid or discard, and therefore control
the outbreak. At the same time, our assessment
of the establishment that produced
the contaminated product could detect if
there's a larger problem at the plant and
whether this is a systemic problem and
not just a local issue," Mande continued.
"However, today, we often don't have all
the information we need to protect public
health. For example, in 2008, during an E.
coli O157:H7 illness investigation in Kentucky,
FSIS and our state partners found
a retail firm to be a common source of
ground beef eaten by those who got sick.
The retailer acknowledged it produced
several beef grinds, but didn't maintain
grinding logs. The retailer used possibly
six to nine sources of meat in producing
the grinds. As a result, FSIS was unable
to trace the products back to the source.
If we had been able to identify the source
or sources, we could have determined if
other contaminated meat remained in
commerce. Doing so would have prevented
other consumers from getting sick, enabled
us to determine whether plants were
still producing contaminated product, and
allowed us to verify if corrective actions
"Clearly, reform is needed at the retail
level, where in many cases the traceback
trail ends, but where it really should begin.
Many retailers don't keep records, or the
records that they do keep are inadequate.
Many retailers are small businesses with
small staffs, so it is easy to understand
why record keeping isn't a high priority.
For some, it could even be considered a
burden. So there clearly are challenges before
Mande went on to credit retailers that
maintain good records. Technology and
traceback models used in other parts of
the world "should make this task easier,"
he added. "And retail is just one point in
the entire system where traceback needs
to be improved. Each day, FSIS and industry
tests products for microbial contamination.
Efforts to determine the source
of positive product that an establishment
produces need to be robust to prevent
contaminated product from reaching consumers.
"The challenge doesn't end at our nation's
borders. Nearly 3.3 billion pounds
of meat and poultry are imported into the
United States each year. Trade in food is
critical to our diet and permits our farmers
and other food producers to sell their
"Foodborne illness, however, does not
respect national borders so we need to be
looking toward a seamless tracing system
that reaches throughout the nation and
the world. This is no small task and will
require that everyone in the food business
must do their part and make traceability a
This article originally appeared in the February 2010 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.