Safer Food and Greater Consumer Confidence

Tom Vilsack
Jul 5, 2016 · 14 min read

The summer barbecue season is upon us once again, and food safety is on the minds of many Americans who are taking their meals outdoors.

The United States’ food safety system is composed of a team of thousands of professionals at the federal, state and local levels who work together — largely behind the scenes — to ensure the food on your table is safe to eat. That network has grown stronger than ever before over the past eight years, modernizing to meet growing demand from customers around the world.

USDA has a role to play in ensuring the safety of virtually all foods produced and eaten in America, but our most direct responsibility is to make sure America’s supply of meat, poultry and processed egg products is safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged.

Our estimates indicate that the total number of illnesses attributed to USDA-regulated products fell more than 12 percent from 2009 to 2015. The policies implemented under the Obama Administration will go a long way in protecting public health. For example, it is estimated that the food safety standards implemented for Salmonella and Campylobacter in poultry will prevent about 67,000 illnesses annually.

In fact, the chicken, steaks, ribs and hamburger you’re grilling today get much more scrutiny than the ones you would have purchased eight years ago. Over the course of the Obama Administration, USDA has made changes to meat and poultry labels, updated our food safety inspection methods, modernized how our laboratories test for things like E. coli and Salmonella and reconsidered all the ways we help safer food reach store shelves.

We’re better now at keeping unsafe food out of commerce, whether it’s made unsafe because of dangerous bacteria, or because of an allergen, like peanuts or wheat. We have launched a sophisticated data system that allows us to pull inspection and testing data for any food company quickly and also connect to a system at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection so we can better track imported food shipments that need our safety assessment.

While an estimated 1 in 6 Americans experiences foodborne illness each year, USDA’s modernization efforts are bringing down the number of foodborne illnesses in USDA-regulated products. The work we have done since 2009 represents some of the most significant changes to America’s food safety system since the 1950s. More effective testing, greater focus on mislabeling, and more rigorous scientific processes are building a stronger overall safety net to detect pathogens and mislabeled product before they reach consumers.

As we begin to look back at our impact on food safety and consumer confidence, here are the top 5 food safety changes we’ve made since 2009:

1. Prohibiting STECs: In the 1990’s, USDA took historic action by declaring that beef contaminated with a common and dangerous strain of E. coli, known as E. coli O157:H7, was adulterated and therefore illegal to be sold in America. E. coli O157:H7 is so harmful in even small quantities because it produces a toxin called shiga-toxin. Prior to this Administration, other strains of shiga-toxin producing E. coli were considered to be a rare public health concern and therefore were not given the same illegal and unsafe status as O157:H7. In 2010, thanks in part to improved technology, CDC reported that the number of human infections from these other strains for the first time surpassed infections with the more common E. coli O157:H7. CDC estimated at the time that shiga-toxin producing E. coli strains other than O157:H7 cause nearly 113,000 illnesses each year, one-third of which could be attributed to beef. Armed with this information, USDA quickly moved to establish a zero tolerance policy for raw beef products that contain E. coli O26, O103, O45, O111, O121 and O145, collectively known as the “Big Six” strains of shiga-toxin producing E. coli. USDA announced the move in 2011, and enforcement to detect these pathogens and prevent them from reaching consumers began in early 2012.

2. Labeling Mechanically Tenderized Meat: Beginning this summer, USDA is requiring meat companies to disclose on packages of beef steak and other whole cuts if a product has been “mechanically tenderized,” meaning the meat was pierced with needles or small blades to break up tissue and make it tenderer. The blades or needles can introduce pathogens from the surface of the beef to the interior, making proper cooking very important. However, mechanically tenderized products look no different than meat that has not been treated this way, so without disclosure on the label, consumers may not know about this higher food safety risk.

Home cooks, restaurants and other food service facilities now have more information about the products they are buying, as well as useful cooking instructions so they know how to safely prepare them. You should be able to spot these labels when you go shopping for your summer barbecues.

Mechanically tenderized beef products are now labeled as such and include validated cooking instructions so that household consumers, hotels, restaurants and similar institutions have necessary information to safely cook these products.

3. Targeting Commonly Eaten Foods: In 2012, recognizing a stubborn trend in Salmonella illnesses, FSIS pulled together a small group of its staff with different responsibilities in different parts of the country to develop an all-hands-on-deck plan for tackling Salmonella. As part of that plan, we were able to prioritize development of the first-ever Salmonella and Campylobacter (a lesser-known bacteria associated with poultry) reduction standards for poultry parts, which consumers purchase far more frequently than whole broiler or fryer chickens. In addition, FSIS committed to posting online more data about each company’s performance under these standards, to increase transparency and further incentivize companies to achieve or surpass them. These new standards are expected to prevent 50,000 cases of foodborne illness annually.

4. Modernizing Poultry Food Safety Inspections: In August 2014, USDA finalized the most significant update to poultry food safety inspections since 1957, requiring for the first time ever that that all poultry facilities create a plan to prevent contamination with Salmonella and Campylobacter, rather than addressing contamination after it occurs. Under this update, poultry companies now have to collect samples at two points on their production line and have them tested, which is done in addition to USDA’s own improved testing strategy in poultry plants. This same update introduced the New Poultry Inspection System, a science-based inspection system that, while optional for poultry companies, positions food safety inspectors in a smarter way so that they can have maximum food safety oversight.

5. Testing and Holding Policy: Beginning in 2012, USDA requires meat and poultry companies to hold all product that is undergoing laboratory analysis until the agency’s microbial and chemical tests for harmful hazards are fully complete. This “test and hold” policy will significantly reduce consumer exposure to unsafe meat products, and it could have prevented 44 recalls of unsafe foods between 2007 and 2009 if it had been in place at the time.

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Shifting our Focus to Prioritize Prevention

Since the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906, a century of science and research has helped us know more about harmful pathogens and how to prevent illness than ever before. Today, consumers the world over have confidence in U.S. food and agricultural products because of a comprehensive system of science, data, tough standards, and an experienced team of largely unrecognized public servants who work day in and day out to ensure the safety, quality and transparency of our food system.

In collaboration with other federal food safety partners at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates food products like leafy greens, bakery goods and beverages, and at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which investigates and identifies causes of foodborne illnesses, USDA plays a crucial role in reducing the risk of foodborne illness for all Americans.

USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which by statute is charged with ensuring the safety of our meat, poultry and processed egg supply, consists of a team of 9,600 men and women. They work in one of three food safety laboratories across the United States, maintain a constant presence in more than 6,000 slaughter and processing facilities, and reinspect imports at 122 ports of entry. Still others spend long hours on the road cracking foodborne illness outbreak cases, or they improve policies and piece together telling data trends here in Washington, D.C. They are a committed and talented bunch, of whom the rest of the USDA family is immensely proud.

This team targets their response to tackling four foodborne pathogens that most frequently affect our regulated products: Salmonella, Escherichia coli (E. coli), Listeria monocytogenes, and Campylobacter. Many of the food safety improvements made under this Administration were born of this group’s experience and expertise, but new technology is also making it possible to tackle lesser-known, emerging risks.

Over the past eight years, thanks to them, we have tightened standards for the companies who process and prepare thousands of food products. We have upgraded technology and internal systems to track and report safety issues to regulators and the public in real time. We have knitted together the web of federal agencies overseeing the totality of America’s food safety system to ensure standards are tough on behalf of the consumer, vigilant against emerging risks, consistent and coordinated. And we have introduced new consumer-facing tools that give anyone with a desktop, tablet or smart phone the information they need to guard themselves and their family against food borne illnesses.

For the thousands of Americans who suffer from food related allergies, proper food labels are a critical defense against adverse reactions. Beginning in 2011, FSIS inspectors were directed to take an intensive look at meat and poultry companies’ ingredient labels, and compare them against day-to-day production. USDA initiated 40 recalls for undeclared allergens that year — up from just 18 in 2010 — as we uncovered instances where labels were out of date or suppliers had changed their spice mixtures. In April 2015, food safety inspectors met with management at every meat and poultry facility in the country to go over their labeling procedures, and later that year USDA issued new best practices to help companies avoid costly and risky labeling errors. As a result of these actions, far more mislabeled product is kept out of commerce now than prior to this Administration.

Beginning in 2015, we now require retail outlets that produce ground beef to keep clear and accountable records to help investigators more quickly determine the source of a foodborne illness outbreak and remove potentially contaminated product from commerce. At times, outbreak investigations have been hindered when retail stores produce ground beef by mixing product from various sources, but fail to keep clear records that would allow investigators to determine which supplier produced the unsafe product. This new requirement complements expedited traceback and traceforward procedures announced in August 2014 that enhance the agency’s ability to quickly and broadly investigate food safety breakdowns in the event of an outbreak connected to ground beef.

In addition to tighter regulations for the meat and poultry industry, FSIS has made smart internal changes that are strengthening its ability to prevent unsafe food from reaching American shoppers. For example, the Public Health Information System (PHIS) is a modern, comprehensive data management system that connects data from meat and poultry facilities, ports of entry and our three regional laboratories, input by our network 7,500 food safety inspectors. This has given FSIS a comprehensive view of the nation’s food safety landscape and allows the agency to adapt quickly to address issues that could negatively affect public health. Because of PHIS, FSIS now has a more efficient and robust sampling program, a better understanding of industry compliance and the ability to respond to emerging food safety issues.

FSIS has helped 27 states implement food safety oversight that is at least equal to Federal requirements, helping more than 1,600 small and very small establishments produce and market meat and poultry products for local sale.

Internal updates to FSIS’s three public health laboratories are also greatly improving public health. For example, FSIS’ microbiologists found that by increasing the size of ground beef samples tested in our labs, they could test the ground beef for Salmonella and E. coli at the same time. This means they are able to collect more public health information from each sample taken, and their findings are more accurate.

FSIS, along with its partners at FDA and CDC, has begun transitioning to use Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS), as part of basic foodborne pathogen surveillance and strain identification during foodborne illness outbreaks. Whole Genome Sequencing is a laboratory technique that helps differentiate microorganisms with precision greater than Pulse-Field Gel Electrophoresis, the technique used by all three agencies currently. WGS is more accurate and efficient, and our public health partners have shown that use of WGS can shrink the life span of foodborne outbreaks. FSIS performs both PFGE and WGS on all E. coli, Listeria monocytogenes , Campylobacter and Salmonella isolates, to assess bacterial traits of concern including antibiotic resistance.

In 2011, President Obama signed the landmark Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which shifted the overall paradigm of federal food safety efforts from one of response to prevention for the first time in more than 70 years. While FSMA does not apply to meat and poultry products, different staff across USDA work in coordination with the Departments of Health and Human Services and Homeland Security to ensure the nation’s food and agricultural systems are fully prepared to prevent food safety risks and vulnerabilities. To support FSMA, USDA has dedicated $6 million toward implementation and research efforts and to help America’s fruit, vegetable and grain growers comply with stronger food safety standards across the board. We’ve also made other changes to align our research and food safety efforts with our federal partners.

Engaging and Educating Consumers

In nearly eight years as your Secretary of Agriculture, I have also witnessed how the federal government has spurred a remarkable rise in consumer knowledge. Armed with ever-increasing resources, global consumers now demand and receive comprehensive information about the growers and production processes and locations of their favorite foods. The same collection of federal agencies responsible for keeping American families safe from foodborne illness has also made it possible for food companies to increase transparency and deliver on that demand. There is no doubt that a well-informed consumer is a force for positive change.

As consumer demand for information and diversity in agriculture has increased, USDA has supported America’s agricultural system with the tools and resources needed to diversify operations and offerings while enhancing sustainability for the long term.

As part of this, we are in the business of educating consumers on the many ways they can reduce the risk of foodborne illness at home. You may recognize our food safety public education campaign — clean, separate, cook and chill — from TV, bus stops, in print or even coming through your radio. This multimedia campaign, developed in collaboration with the Ad Council in English and Spanish, highlights the importance of four basic safe food handling practices to prevent cross-contamination and to ensure proper cooking and chilling.

FSIS helps consumers keep their families safe with broad outreach and tips like this video from Martie Duncan, chef, blogger and Food Network star.

In 2015, we also launched the Foodkeeper application for smartphones and tablets. The easy-to-use app offers consumers valuable storage advice and food safety information about more than 400 commonplace food and beverage items, including various types of baby food, dairy products and eggs, meat, poultry, produce and seafood. Developed by USDA, the app is intended to help reduce food waste in addition to educating about proper food handling. If there is a question about what the “best by” date means or how to properly prepare and store food, the Foodkeeper app can likely answer it. It has been downloaded over 100,000 times.

Our partnerships have allowed us to reach deeper into vulnerable communities that include populations at higher risk for foodborne illness. Organizations like the National Council on Aging, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American Public Health Association, American Society of Clinical Oncology, AIDS Project of East Bay, National Association for Family Child Care, the Greater Washington Urban League and the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation have helped us to spread food safety messages and educational materials to their members across the nation to help keep their families and loved ones safe.

Investing in Public Health Through Research

We believe strongly that the health of humans, animals and the environment is intimately con­nected. This “One Health” approach is emphasized at USDA and as the work that we do spans across many USDA agencies, we’ve launched a centralized web portal page to better help our stakeholders and the public access the information they need including USDA’s collective body of work on zoonotic agents and conditions — those shared by animals and humans.

Bacteria such as Salmonella, viruses such as influenza, parasites such as Taenia, and non-conventional agents such as the prion that causes bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) can infect animals and humans. Improving our understanding of where pathogens originate and how they interact in the environment is critical to identifying effective mitigation strategies to effectively diminish their occurrence.

The One Health approach is reflected in the National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria released by the Obama Administration in 2015. This comprehensive plan identifies critical actions to be taken by key Federal departments and agencies to combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Antibiotics have been a critical public health tool since the discovery of penicillin in 1928, saving the lives of millions of people around the world. The emergence of drug resistance in bacteria is undermining our ability to treat bacterial infections and perform a range of modern medical procedures. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that drug-resistant bacteria cause 23,000 deaths and 2 million illnesses each year in the United States. Antibiotic resistance also threatens animal health, agriculture, and the economy.

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With the help of Federal, industry, commodity and academic partners, USDA is working to identify knowledge gaps and develop effective, practical mitigation strategies to prolong the effectiveness of antibiotics to treat both people and animals.

In addition, USDA consistently conducts and funds food safety research to generate real-world results for both government and the private sector. In 2014 alone, USDA provided more than $112 million for food safety research, education and extension projects to help build a modern public health system.

In a pioneering discovery, a USDA scientist recently found a way to mitigate the use of antibiotics in poultry by using certain food supplements, probiotics, nutrients and vaccines that effectively enhance the immune system and fight common parasitic diseases and bacterial infections. This discovery is a leading example of a scientific breakthrough that is helping us progress our efforts to reduce antibiotic use in the poultry industry and protect the health of both consumers and animals all while saving the poultry industry from an estimated combined loss of more than $5 billion worldwide. For her distinguished work that has undoubtedly led to safer poultry products, I’m proud to report that USDA Agricultural Research Service molecular biologist, Dr. Hyun Soon Lillejoh, earned a 2015 Service to America Medal.

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Read more on the USDA Blog.

With USDA funding, researchers at North Carolina A&T University have also developed a treatment for peanuts that reduces allergens by 98–100 percent, leveling the playing field for millions of Americans, and nearly 400,000 school-aged children, who suffer from peanut allergies.

USDA Results

A progressive year-long storytelling effort of the Obama Administration’s work on behalf of those living, working and raising families in rural America

Tom Vilsack

Written by

Secretary of Agriculture

USDA Results

A progressive year-long storytelling effort of the Obama Administration’s work on behalf of those living, working and raising families in rural America

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