Trace back central to new U.S.D.A. food safety initiative

by Staff
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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, which is responsible for ensuring the safety of meat, poultry and eggs, plans to initiate new policies intended to improve industry and the agency’s ability to trace contaminated product during a food borne illness outbreak.

“One of the key goals of U.S.D.A. and its public health agency, F.S.I.S., has been to strengthen our abilities to protect consumers from foodborne illness,” said Elisabeth Hagen, U.S.D.A. undersecretary for food safety. “Today, we’re announcing several measures that represent the next steps in doing just that by bolstering our prevention-based, public health safeguards.”

The need for effective and reliable trace back methods during the course of an outbreak, when people are already sick, is obvious, Dr. Hagen said. But the F.S.I.S. has the opportunity through the course of its routine microbiological sampling work to take this reactive tool and use it more preventively.

“Under the change in policy we’re announcing today, we intend to launch trace back investigations earlier and identify additional potentially contaminated products sooner when we may have a chance to prevent it from reaching consumers in the first place,” Dr. Hagen said.

The F.S.I.S. will be focusing on several key issues regarding trace back.

“First, we will begin our investigation before routine test results are confirmed positive,” she said. “Currently, F.S.I.S. activities begin after test results are confirmed or when an outbreak occurs.”

Second, the F.S.I.S. will be working quickly to link indicators of contamination through a sole source whenever possible and determine whether the source material was used by any other processors.

“We will then expect companies to recall all common-source material and resulting products under those circumstances,” Dr. Hagen said.

Third, she said the F.S.I.S. will focus quickly on production conditions during the time of contamination at the plant and the plant’s approach to managing what the F.S.I.S. calls high-event periods.

Trace back of raw beef products contaminated with Shigatoxim-producing E. coli (STECs) will improve the F.S.I.S.’ ability to prevent contaminated products from reaching consumers and to recall products faster, Dr. Hagen said.

In 2011, the F.S.I.S. implemented a policy change that has helped the agency improve its current trace back efforts. The change required F.S.I.S. inspectors to record information about the supplier of a product as they are taking microbiological samples. Dr. Hagen elaborated on how the information may help the F.S.I.S. improve its trace back efficiency.

“They’re taking a sample of, let’s say, ground beef,” she said. “They have the information about the sources of the material that was used to go into that ground beef at the time the sample is taken. There are several steps in our PCR-based testing process. We have a staging system where we can call it a potential positive, so we have enough signals that this may turn out to be a real confirmed E. coli positive test. We then have a presumptive positive stage in the testing system. And we have a confirmed positive stage.

“We’re really looking at our experience and how the industry operates, we’re looking at the data we accumulated over the years — enough to know that when we’re at a presumptive stage, that is a good time to start looking and doing trace back work. That, in combination with already having the materials, the data on hand about the suppliers which is a change from what we used to do years ago, allows us to pick up that additional 24 to 48 hours. And when we’re talking about trace back, every minute counts.”

The F.S.I.S. also announced it is providing a new draft guidance document for hazard analysis and critical control point validation that may help processors reduce and control food borne pathogens in their meat and poultry products.

“To be clear, HACCP validation has always been required under the HACCP final rule,” Dr. Hagen said. “This is not a new requirement. However, what we are providing is guidance that relates to better ensuring the support underpinning that validation is consistent and relevant nationwide. We’ve also made a significant effort to get input on that draft guidance. We’ve reviewed comments we’ve had at public meetings, got more input, we revised the guidance and presented it to the National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection last year.”

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