The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture News As It Happens

USDA, FDA say they’ll work with farmers on food safety


ATLANTA — In their first joint public appearance, the nation’s two top food safety experts told the American Farm Bureau Federation Sunday that food producers at all levels have to help improve the safety of American food, but they also reassured farmers and ranchers that they are not planning to come onto their property to conduct inspections on a frequent basis.

“Our jurisdiction begins at the point of slaughter,” Agriculture Undersecretary for Food Safety Elisabeth Hagen, who is in charge of food safety for meat, poultry and processed egg products, said at a presentation here. “We know where our jurisdiction begins and ends,” Hagen said. “We are not looking to expand our jurisdiction. We’re looking for ideas. We’re looking for people to come together. We’d like to pair our scientists with farmers to help them get the answers they’re looking for to see if efforts on food safety are worth [the farmers’] time and if it will make food safer.”

But referring to the development of a new rule to improve the hazard analysis and critical control points system for meat food safety known as HAACP, Hagen also said that the condition of carcasses at the point of slaughter also has an impact on food safety and that “pre-harvest” food safety concerns “have to be a part of the discussion.” The Agriculture Department will promote on farm practices that improve meat food safety, Hagen said.

Hagen said the new HAACP rule should be released in a few months and will reflect comments the agency has received on an initial proposal. “We know we probably didn’t get it quite right the first time,” Hagen said. “Our objective is not to make regulations more burdensome. It is to make them clear.”

U.S. Food and Drug Administration Deputy Commissioner for Foods Mike Taylor, who is in charge of safety for most other foods, said his agency will use the authority Congress gave it in the food safety modernization act passed in December to set standards for the safe growing and processing of food, and to require producers and processors to put food safety plans in place.

FDA’s regulations will also address the safe transportation of food and its handling in the retail sector, Taylor said. FDA will work with states and localities to improve oversight of retail operations and “will hold importers accountable” for making sure that food overseas is produced under the same standards as in the United States, he said. When a Farm Bureau member from North Carolina expressed concern that the new regulations and inspection would give foreign producers a competitive advantage, Taylor said that to the contrary, “There is going to be a real shift of inspection of foreign products.”

FDA’s mandate to prevent foodborne illness “is a big deal shift from the current state of play,” Taylor said, adding that Congress previously had not given FDA a particular mandate.

But Taylor also said that FDA, which has often been criticized for not inspecting food operations more frequently than every 10 years, said that contrary to rumor the agency would not start frequent on-farm inspections. Noting that FDA still has a small staff, he said the agency “could not begin to inspect” all operations frequently.

Taylor said that rising consumer expectations and the emergence of a global food supply produced in many countries had led to an “historic moment” of consensus about how to improve food safety.

Hagen, a physician, said she is motivated by her experience caring for patients suffering from foodborne illness and concern that her own two small children eat safe food. Hagen noted that she treated patients who were healthy and strong “but couldn’t survive a meal,” and that she is determined to reduce the number of people to whom that happens.

Hagen also noted that USDA is responsible for enforcing the law requiring humane handling of livestock. The agency is conducting a training program for inspectors to teach them about humane handling, she said, and has put an ombudsman in place to handle complaints. The agency also has asked the USDA Inspector General to conduct an audit of its humane handling regulations and analyze how the agency has been responding to appeals of its decisions, she added.

When a Texas Farm Bureau member noted that neither Hagen nor Taylor had mentioned irradiation as a solution to food safety problems, Hagen noted that irradiation already can be used for cut meat, and that that USDA has had a petition from the American Meat Institute for carcass irradiation. “There are problems with the petition,” she said, adding that the agency is working with AMI to try to resolve them.

FDA has approved the use of irradiation for a number of foods, Taylor said, but noted that the agency cannot “mandate” it. “There is a consumer acceptance issue,” he noted, and issues with product quality.

Asked by an Arkansas farmer when the Obama administration will release a rule implementing the 2008 bill provision requiring that catfish inspection be moved from FDA to USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, Hagen said, “We know we're overdue,” and that USDA officials also are frustrated at the delays since the proposed rule has been in the hands of the Office of Management and Budget.

“We’re closer than we’ve ever been before. There’s a lot of passion on both sides," she said, adding that the rule should be made public.

Defining the species is a key issue. Southern catfish growers have maintained that FDA inspection of catfish has been weak, and allowed fish not of the same species and grown under questionable conditions to enter the United States. They encouraged Congress to move catfish inspection to USDA and tighten up the rules. But the government of Vietnam has claimed the effort is an attempt to restrict trade, and that government's protest has led OMB to be cautious about issuing the rule.