U.S.D.A., F.D.A. announce measures to reduce foodborne illnesses

by Jay Sjerven
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WASHINGTON — Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius on July 31 announced new steps to reduce foodborne pathogens in ground beef, leafy greens, tomatoes and melons.

"Making prevention a priority is critical to reducing foodborne illness and one of the three food safety principles of President Obama’s Food Safety Working Group," Mr. Vilsack said. "The actions we are taking today will result in safer food in our country, which means healthier children and less costly health care."

Mr. Vilsack announced two measures taken by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service to reduce the incidence of E. coli O157:H7 in beef. First, the F.S.I.S. issued a notice for its inspectors to begin conducting routine sampling of bench trim for E. coli. Bench trim consists of pieces left over from preparing steaks and other cuts that then are used to make ground beef. The F.S.I.S. heretofore did not routinely test bench trim. The new guidance continued the expansion of F.S.I.S. E. coli testing from ground beef itself to include beef components used in the production of ground beef.

Mr. Vilsack also announced an F.S.I.S. directive to inspectors that incorporates into one document all of the instructions the agency previously issued in multiple notices regarding verification activities for E. coli in raw beef products. The directive included instructions to inspectors for sampling raw beef products for F.S.I.S. verification testing for E. coli. In addition, it outlines actions the agency will take when samples of raw ground beef, raw ground beef components or raw beef patty components test positive.

Ms. Sebelius announced three draft guidelines for industry that aim to minimize or eliminate contamination in leafy greens, tomatoes and melons that may cause foodborne illnesses.

"These proposed controls provide a guide for growers and processors to follow so they may better protect their produce from becoming contaminated," Ms. Sebelius said.

Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said the commodity-specific guidelines — one each for leafy greens, tomatoes and melons — were the first step toward setting enforceable standards for produce safety.

"These new food safety guidelines will facilitate the development of enforceable food safety standards and ensure a safer supply of fresh food for all Americans," Dr. Hamburg said. "The three draft guidances are designed to help growers and others across the entire supply chain minimize or eliminate contamination in leafy greens, tomatoes and melons that can cause foodborne illnesses."

The F.D.A. pointed out the commodity-specific guidelines arose from the foundation established by the agency’s Good Agricultural Practices guidance issued in 1998 and subsequent collaboration with the industry to implement it. The GAP was intentionally broad, providing recommendations for the production and packing of all fresh fruits and vegetables consumed in the United States whether produced domestically or abroad.

There was recognition in the GAP that for its recommendations to be most effective, they would have to be tailored to individual operations.

The proposed commodity-specific guidelines also were based on those developed by the produce industry with the assistance of the F.D.A. Industry leaders in 2004 gathered at a produce summit convened by the United Fresh Produce Association. At the session, they agreed guidance should be on a commodity-specific basis, and they identified priority commodities for attention that included leafy greens, tomatoes and melons. The industry established working groups to develop guidance for best practices along the supply chain for these and a number of other priority commodity groups. The F.D.A. provided technical assistance.

Key elements of each new F.D.A. guidance include an acceptable baseline standard of industry practices that help both domestic and foreign companies minimize the risk for microbial contamination of their products throughout the entire supply chain; recommendations regarding growing, harvesting, packing, processing, transportation and distribution of the product, and recommendations for recordkeeping, including some that will help the F.D.A. determine more quickly the source of outbreaks that do occur.

"We are pleased to see that the proposed guidance reflects the substantial work that has already been done by commodity groups over the last several years, as well as the numerous discussions that industry experts, including the Produce Marketing Association, have had with the agency, especially since the Obama administration took office," said Kathy Means, vice-president of government relations and public affairs at the P.M.A. "This reflects the new, more collaborative way of working with stakeholders that the new F.D.A. leadership has been promising."

Industry and other interested parties may submit comments on the proposed guidelines during a comment period extending 90 days from their issuance July 31.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, August 18, 2009, starting on Page 22.

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