Industry groups back federal plan to address foodborne illness Reply

By Richard Lobb on 2/1/2012

from www.meatingplace.com (reprinted by permission)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The nation’s meatpackers are backing a plan by the federal government to get a better handle on which specific foods cause illnesses and death among consumers, saying the improved data can help fill gaps in the food safety system.

“The only way we can better understand what makes people sick is through this data,” Betsy Booren, director of scientific affairs for the American Meat Institute, said at a public meeting at USDA headquarters here. “By having timely, credible food attribution data, the food industry can accurately identify and improve any food safety gaps that may exist.”

The federal agencies involved —USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, the Food & Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — unveiled a plan that will expand the food categories to which both individual cases and larger outbreaks of foodborne illness are assigned. Officials said they would use a variety of data sources and expert opinions to try to pin down the foods that actually cause outbreaks, a large percentage of which are now relegated to the category of “unknown” causes. They said they hoped to complete the project by the end of the year.

Expanded categories

The CDC now uses 17 food categories in investigations of foodborne illness outbreaks. Key to the plan is expanding those categories into many more, splitting a broad category such as “poultry” into branches for chicken and turkey, both fresh and ready-to-eat. Officials said the three agencies have never come together on a single set of data on the source of foodborne illness.

“Attribution is one of the most challenging endeavors in the world of food safety,” said Dr. Elizabeth Hagen, USDA under secretary for food safety. “For regulators, it is incredibly important because it tells us where we should be devoting our resources. Industry needs to know where to put their resources and where they are accountable.”

Consumer groups are also backing the plan and are ahead of the government in some respects. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) uses an expanded set of food categories in its own annual report on foodborne illness, using what it says are descriptions more intelligible to the public, such as “beef dishes, ground beef, (and) other beef” in the beef category.

“We need to provide both investigators and the public with a system that is more intuitive to consumers,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, CSPI’s director of food safety. She said the CDC categories are based on the production of food rather than consumption.

Not a straight line

FSIS and other agencies spend considerable time and effort trying to control pathogenic microorganisms on raw food. A top official warned at the meeting that contamination levels are not necessarily related to foodborne illness. Dr. David Goldman, assistant administrator of FSIS for public health, said the agency was alarmed several years ago when the level of raw chicken carcasses contaminated with Salmonella rebounded to 16 percent after reaching lower levels. Under pressure from the government, chicken companies reduced the rate by two-thirds, he said. But the prevalence of salmonellosis in the human population never changed significantly, he said.

“We now know there is not a straight line between product contamination and human illness,” Goldman said.

Presentations given at the meeting are available on the FSIS website.

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