New Initiative Created To Enhance Import Safety

Today, more than 15 percent of the food consumed in the United States is imported from foreign shores.  In turn, more and more cosumers are begining to question what is, and what isn't, being done to ensure the safety of foreign food product imports. 

In response, the Department of Homeland Security ("DHS") recently announced the creation of a new group, called the Import Safety Commercial Targeting and Analysis Center ("CTAC"), designed to enhance federal efforts to ensure the safety of imported foods.

Recommended by President Obama’s Food Safety Working Group, the new center will be staffed with about 30 members, will operate under the direction of Customs and Border Protection ("CBP"), and will receive direct assistance from numerous additional governmental agencies, including the FDA, EPA and CPSC. As one of CBP's six commercial targeting centers in the United States, the CTAC will target shipments of imported cargo, including food, for potential safety violations.

"In addition to guarding against terrorism and crime, securing our borders and facilitating legitimate trade involve ensuring the safety of imported [food] products," said DHS Secretary Napolitano. "This new targeting center will enhance the inspection of goods entering our country by centralizing and strengthening federal efforts to protect U.S. consumers."

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius also backed the initiative. “With so much food coming from abroad, we must do all we can to ensure that it conforms to the same safety standards as our own food safety systems,” said Sebelius. “The new CTAC announced today is an important step toward the type of collaboration necessary to ensure that Americans have access to a safe and healthy food supply,” added Vilsack.

As part of its collaboration with CBP, FSIS will also extend its enforcement efforts to target ineligible imports, and investigate suspicious shipments based on manifest information filed prior to the arrival of goods at U.S. ports.

Ultimately, the new facility, which will be located adjacent to CBP's Office of International Trade in Washington, will strive to enhance the safety of foreign food product imports by promoting the three core principles announced by the Food Safety Working Group: Prevention, Surveillance and Response.

Secretary Vilsack Issues Broad Statement On Food Safety

Following recent media coverage involving the regulation of our food supply, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack issued a statement highlighting the continuing efforts of USDA to ensure that our food remains as safe as it can be. Click on the following link to view the USDA Statement.

“Over the last eight months since President Obama took office,” said Vilsack, “the USDA has been aggressive in its efforts to improve food safety, and has been an active partner in establishing and contributing to President Obama's Food Safety Working Group.”

"Protecting public health is the sole mission of the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. FSIS has continued to make improvements to reduce the presence of E. coli O157:H7 and the agency is committed to working to reduce the incidence of food-borne illnesses caused by this pathogen.

"Shortly after coming into office, the Administration created a high-level Food Safety Working Group to coordinate food safety policies, focus greater resources on prevention, and improve response to outbreaks. Since doing so, we have taken the following actions:

  • Launched an initiative to cut down E. Coli contamination (including in particular contamination from E. Coli O157:H7) and as part of that initiative, stepped-up meat facility inspections involving greater use of sampling to monitor the products going into ground beef;
  • Appointed a chief medical officer within USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service to reaffirm its role as a public health agency;
  • Issued draft guidelines for industry to further reduce the risk of O157 contamination;
  • Started testing additional components of ground beef, including bench trim, and issuing new instructions to our employees asking that they verify that plants follow sanitary practices in processing beef carcasses; and
  • Designed the Public Health Information System (PHIS) in response to lessons learned in past outbreaks.

According to Vilsack, "the USDA is also looking at ways to enhance trace back methods and will initiate a rulemaking in the near future to require all grinders, including establishments and retail stores, to keep accurate records of the sources of each lot of ground beef."

"No priority is greater to me than food safety," said Vilsack, "and I am firmly committed to taking the steps necessary to reduce the incidence of food-borne illness and protect the American people from preventable illnesses. We will continue to make improvements to reduce the presence of E. coli 0157:H7."

Because there is no technology (with the exception of irradiation or cooking), however, to ensure that raw animal products can be made sterile, FSIS continues to remind consumers that thoroughly cooking raw animal products to an internal temperature of 160 degrees will destroy any pathogens that may be present, and will render the products safe.

New Food Safety Website Officially Launched: www.foodsafety.gov

It's not www.foodsafetycounsel.com.  But, it may be a close second.

Numerous food safety improvement measures have been initiated in the United States this year. One of the latest, unveiled by the FDA, USDA and Department of Health and Human Services, is a food safety website. The website, www.foodsafety.gov will provide a broad variety of information relating to food safety, including recall information and food handling tips. It will include news and information from each of the governmental agencies including FDA, USDA and CDC responsible for overseeing food safety in the United States.

The site, which is described as a gateway to federal food safety information, provides a wide array of information and resources for consumers to utilize. Among the numerous tools available on the site, are food safety educational materials for download, information about pathogens, podcasts and also an “ask a question” link whereby a consumer can receive an answer to a specific question.. The food safety information is broken down by food groups. It is both easily navigable and readily accessible.

According to the Food Safety Working Group, the federal government will continue “to enhance www.foodsafety.gov to better communicate information to the public and include an improved individual alert system allowing consumers to receive food safety information, such as notification of recalls. Agencies will also use social media to expand public communications.”

Future plans include expanding the website to have mobile access and text alerts.

White House Pledges To Upgrade Food Safety System

The President's “Food Safety Working Group,” chaired by the Secretaries of the Department of Health and Human Services (Kathleen Sebelius) and the Department of Agriculture (Tom Vilsack), was conceived in March 2009 to help modernize our food safety system. In turn, Vice President Biden, Sebelius and Vilsack, have now announced key findings of the Group.

Following numerous meetings, and imput from key stakeholders, the Working Group has recommended a new approach to food safety based on three core principles: (1) prioritizing prevention; (2) strengthening surveillance and enforcement; and (3) improving response and recovery.

"There are few responsibilities more basic or more important for the government than making sure the food our families eat is safe," said Vice President Biden. "Our food safety system must be updated – 1 in 4 people get sick every year due to food-borne illness, and children and the elderly are more at risk. I applaud the Secretaries of HHS and the USDA for tackling this problem head-on, and coming up with key recommendations to ensure the health and safety of our food supply and, with it, the American people."

"Instead of spending their time trying to get kids to eat healthier food, too many parents and families are worrying about whether their food is safe in the first place," said Secretary Sebelius. "In just the past few months since we began work with the Food Safety Working Group, we have seen recalls on everything from spinach to peanut products to now even cookie dough.” According to Sebelius, the Administration believes “that the current system just isn’t working for America’s families, and under the President’s leadership, we are taking action to keep our food supply safe and prevent outbreaks that can impact millions of Americans."

"There isn’t a single American that isn’t impacted by our efforts to protect the food supply," said Secretary Vilsack. "We owe it to the American people to deliver on President Obama’s bold promise to greatly enhance our food safety system, moving our approach into the 21st century, employing the best surveillance techniques available, and ensuring that we are doing all we can to prevent illness before it occurs."

In its announcement, the Working Group outlined specific steps designed to advance its three core principles:

  • HHS and USDA are targeting Salmonella contamination by developing tougher standards to protect the safety of eggs, poultry, and turkey.
  • To fight the threat of E. coli, USDA is stepping up enforcement in beef facilities and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is developing new industry guidance improving protections for leafy greens, melons, and tomatoes.
  • The Obama Administration is building a new national traceback and response system including clearer industry guidance, a new unified incident command system, and improved use of technology to deliver individual food safety alerts to consumers.
  • Finally, the Administration announced a plan to strengthen the organization of federal food safety functions, including the creation of new positions at key food safety agencies and a continuing oversight role for the Food Safety Working Group.

The Food Safety Working Group is chaired by Secretaries Sebelius and Vilsack, and participating agencies include the FDA, the FSIS, the CDC, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Commerce, the Department of State, the Environmental Protection Agency, and several offices of the White House.

President's Working Group Aims To Improve Food Safety

The President's “Food Safety Working Group,” chaired by the Secretaries of the Department of Health and Human Services (Kathleen Sebelius) and the Department of Agriculture (Tom Vilsack), was conceived to help modernize our food safety system. The group intends to foster “collaborative partnerships with consumers, industry and regulatory partners” and, through a transparent process, “build a food safety system to meet the challenges posed by a global food supply in the 21st century.” Click on the following link to visit the President’s Food Safety Working Group Website.

Last week, the Food Safety Working Group held its first “Listening Session” at the White House. Participants included numerous stakeholders representing a diverse range of organizations. Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack, who delivered the opening remarks, told participants that food Safety is of the highest concern for all of us. Although Vilsack noted that “Americans enjoy one of the safest food supplies in the world,” he also stated that more can should be done to improve food safety at all levels. Vilsack’s remarks are included below:

Welcome. Thank you for taking time to join us this morning.

Food Safety is of the highest concern for all of us here today. While Americans enjoy one of the safest food supplies in the world, we have witnessed too many outbreaks that make us worry that the food on our dinner plate or in our child’s lunch box will harm instead of nourish. This is not acceptable.

Today is the beginning of a significant and critical process that will fully review the safety of our nation’s food supply.

President Obama has pledged his full support in this matter and has charged the Food Safety Working Group with examining all aspects of food safety, be it meat or produce, fresh or frozen, whether it is imported, or produced domestically.

This issue will be one of USDA’s highest priorities. We are in the midst of reviewing all of our statutory authorities, as well as administrative and regulatory steps we can take, to ensure that our actions support public health and consumer safety to the fullest extent.

We have reviewed the Federal Meat Inspection Act, looked over our existing Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point regulations, reviewed our enforcement authorities, and looked at how we collect data. While we are doing a good job, we at USDA can always do better.

I’d like to outline several specific challenges we need your input on:

•  Prevention. The key to a functioning food safety system is preventing foodborne illness. That means robust standards and sufficient authorities to prevent illnesses from occurring. Both FDA and USDA have embraced this principle and we must have a consistent approach.

•  Surveillance and Response. Our regulatory agencies must actively watch for disease outbreaks and take rapid action to ensure that we have effective and targeted recalls. Such recalls are in the interests of public health and the strength of industry sectors that might otherwise be tarnished by massive recalls.

•  As many people know first hand, in this economy we do not have unlimited resources. Nor can we simply pass higher food production costs onto struggling consumers. We must ensure that we are allocating our food safety resources effectively and efficiently. That means focusing the most attention on the products that have the most potential to cause harm.

•  The safety of a product should not be determined by where it originated. We live in a global community and by working more closely with our partners around the world we can make sure that the food the US is importing is as safe as the food we are exporting.

 •  All parts of the food safety system need to coordinate and work together in a seamless fashion. The FDA and USDA must do a better job of coordinating and I know that Secretary Sebelius and I will drive our agencies to improve coordination.

•  Industry, government, and consumer: each of us brings a piece of the puzzle. We can only solve this if all pieces are represented. It is time for us to set aside past frustrations, collaborate, and move forward together.

Finally, we need to develop a way to measure our success. I am confident that by working together, we will make improvements to the safety of our food supply. But we need a way to track our progress both in the short and long term, so that we do not settle for merely okay, but continually strive for improvement. Lives are at stake and good is simply not good enough.

Thank you again for joining us today.

The Secretary also thanked the participants’ mutual commitment to food safety, highlighted the Administration’s broad support for the modernization of food safety initiatives, and pointed to new and enhanced coordination between HHS and USDA to support this goal.

ViIsack also challenged government, industry and consumers to work more closely to improve food safety. This is good advice.

In the end, we all shoulder responsibility (whether producing or preparing food) to ensure that the meals we serve to our families are, indeed, as safe as they can possibly be.