Future food safety efforts include focus on prevention, trace-back and enforcement

by Jay Sjerven
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Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius on Dec. 21 issued a report on the accomplishments and strategies of the Food Safety Working Group, the interagency taskforce created in 2009 to advise the president on how to strengthen the U.S. food safety system through a coordinated federal agency approach. In addition to documenting progress registered during the past three years, the report outlined initiatives being undertaken to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act (F.S.M.A.) and enhance the effectiveness of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service.

The report didn’t discuss funding for these initiatives, which for fiscal 2012 seemed secure but for fiscal 2013 and beyond was anything but certain given congressional efforts to severely pare spending even in the absence of an agreed set of priorities.

Looking to the future, the report indicated the group’s member agencies will con-centrate on implementing a food safety strategy based on increased prevention, enhanced surveillance and faster response.

High on the list of prevention priorities is addressing the problem of infection and transmission of foodborne disease organisms at various points in livestock and fresh produce production. To this end, the report indicated the F.S.I.S. will continue to increase enforcement activities in beef facilities. Also, the F.S.I.S. and its partner agencies at the U.S.D.A. will discuss with other federal agencies, producers, and scientists how to further minimize pathogen contamination during animal production, including poultry production.

The report indicated the F.S.I.S. also is developing a proposed rule to address food safety risks in the egg products indus­try and will require hazard analysis and critical control point systems in every establishment that produces egg products.

As required by the F.S.M.A., the F.D.A. in the next one to three years will issue new rules establishing preventive control requirements for pro-duce growers, food and animal feed processing facilities, and
food transporters and im-porters. The report noted the F.D.A. has conducted outreach with stakeholders to prepare for the issuance of the rules and will work with the U.S.D.A. and other partners to ensure the final standards take into account the diversity and complexity of these sectors.

In connection with enhanced surveillance and compliance, the F.D.A. will use enforcement powers granted it by the F.S.M.A., including detaining products and suspending the registration of facilities that put consumers at risk, the report said. Also, when necessary, the agency will use its new power to mandate recalls of food that are contaminated or linked to outbreaks.

The F.D.A. also will implement the new import safety tool kit created by the F.S.M.A. Food importers will be respon­sible for providing documented assurances to the F.D.A. that the food they import has been produced under the same prevention-oriented standards as domestic food. The F.D.A. will verify the adequacy of the assurances by examining importer records and selectively inspecting import shipments.

According to the report, the F.D.A. will supplement the efforts of importers by establishing an accredited third-party certification program, working with foreign governments and assessing the adequacy of food safety oversight and practices in countries exporting to the United States. It also will increase inspections of foreign food facilities and implement a system to expedite entry of food shipments for importers that have especially well-documented systems to ensure safety.

For its part, the F.S.I.S. will further define its risk-based methodology for audits of countries allowed to export meat products to the United States. The F.S.I.S. will publish a document that details a performance-based approach to audits of foreign countries and point-of-entry reinspections. This documentation will ensure that foreign equivalence audits con-tinue to move in the direction of a risk-based approach and concentrate resources effectively and efficiently.

Both agencies aim to improve trace-back abilities. The F.S.I.S. will propose a rule to enhance access to records to facilitate trace-back in the case an ill-ness or outbreak is associated with ground beef purchased from retail stores. The F.S.I.S. also will develop compliance guidelines retailers may use to meet F.S.I.S. trace-back and trace-forward activities.

The F.D.A. will consider information gathered through pilot tests of approaches to product tracing in other food categories, work with the food industry to foster improved tracing, and enhance its internal systems for tracing products to their origin.
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