Taking steps toward enhancing food safety system

by Jay Sjerven
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WASHINGTON — The Food Safety Working Group, the commission established at the direction of President Barack Obama to improve the nation’s food safety system, unveiled "key findings" during a public session July 7 that will guide the work of federal agencies in the next several months. The session was opened by Vice-President Joe Biden, reflecting the importance the administration attaches to the working group’s mission. Secretaries Kathleen Sebelius of the Department of Health and Human Services (H.H.S.) and Tom Vilsack of the U.S. Department of Agriculture officiated as co-chairs of the working group.

The findings outlined what the federal agencies will do on their own authority to strengthen the food safety system. At the same time, the administration indicated it would continue to work with Congress to enact legislation providing the Food and Drug Administration of the H.H.S. and the Food Safety Inspection Service of the U.S.D.A. and other relevant agencies enhanced authorities deemed essential to upgrading the nation’s food safety system.

The working group directed the F.D.A. and the F.S.I.S. to target Salmonella and E. coli in preventive efforts.

The group announced the F.D.A.’s final rule to control Salmonella contamination of eggs, issued July 9. It aims to reduce the number of foodborne illnesses associated with the consumption of raw or undercooked contaminated shell eggs by about 60%, or 79,000 illnesses, a year.

By the end of 2009, the F.S.I.S. will develop new standards to reduce the prevalence of Salmonella in poultry. The agency also will establish a Salmonella verification program with the goal of having 90% of poultry processors meeting the new standards by the end of 2010.

The F.S.I.S. will issue improved instructions to its inspection force on how to verify facilities handling beef are acting to reduce the presence of E. coli. Also, the F.S.I.S. will increase its sampling to find the pathogen, concentrating on the components used in making ground beef.

By the end of July, the F.D.A. will issue commodity-specific draft guidance on preventive controls for industry to reduce the risk of microbial contamination in the production and distribution of tomatoes, melons and leafy greens.

The working group assigned high priority to developing an effective trace-back system. The group said within three months, the F.D.A. will issue draft guidance on steps the food industry should take to establish product tracing systems to improve the capacity for detecting the origins of foodborne illness.

Within three months, federal agencies will implement a new incident command system linking all relevant agencies, including state and local governments, to address outbreaks of foodborne illness.

Within 6 to 12 months, the F.S.I.S. will improve collaboration with states’ public health departments by increasing the capacity of its public health epidemiology liaison program through additional hires and expanded outreach.

The group said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will work with states to evaluate and optimize best practices for aggressive and rapid outbreak investigation and launch a system to facilitate information-sharing and adoption of best practices within six months.

Importantly, the group said the F.D.A. will create a new position, deputy commissioner for foods, to oversee and coordinate its efforts on food, including food safety. This individual, reporting to the commissioner, will be empowered to restructure and revitalize F.D.A.’s food activities and work with the F.S.I.S. and other agencies in developing a new food safety system.

Pamela Bailey, president and chief executive officer, Grocery Manufacturers Association, Washington, said, "These new rules in combination with pending legislation in the House and Senate will lay a new foundation for our food safety system by making prevention of contamination the focus of our food safety strategies."

Barry Carpenter, c.e.o. of the National Meat Association, Oakland, Calif., said, "These are principles of universal applicability, and the president’s working group has taken a step in the right direction by adopting them as guidelines. Details still have to be worked out, but if the working group truly starts by acting in a preventive manner, based on good data and analysis, then the opportunity to make real progress exists."

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