Header graphic for print

Food Safety News

Breaking news for everyone's consumption

Meeting Our Mission – A Safer Food Supply

Opinion

My passion for public health stems from my career as an infectious disease doctor, watching families cope with the heartbreak caused by preventable diseases, including foodborne illness.  I know what it feels like to explain to a husband in shock that the reason his wife is on life support is because of something she ate that was contaminated with a deadly pathogen.

Now, I am the Under Secretary for Food Safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  In my current role, I oversee dedicated USDA inspectors, scientists, veterinarians, and numerous other personnel who protect food that we eat every day. There is nothing more fundamental than being able to feed your own family a meal that will not make you sick, or worse, put you in the hospital.

I understand that there has been a lot of confusion about a proposal by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to modernize inspection at poultry slaughter plants.

I would like to try to eliminate that confusion.  

First and most importantly, we put forward this modernization proposal because we have data demonstrating that the system it embodies will prevent foodborne illnesses – approximately 5,000 per year.  It will prevent illnesses by making commonsense, scientifically verified changes in the way inspection personnel do their work in plants.

This is significant because for the past 10 years, the food safety community hasn’t been able to make any headway in the fight against two dangerous strains of bacteria that are commonly found in poultry products – Salmonella and Campylobacter. While poultry only accounts for a fraction of the illnesses attributable to Salmonella and Campylobacter, the numbers from these pathogens are still significant. Together, these two bacteria cause an approximate 344,000 poultry-associated foodborne illnesses every year.  The most troubling aspect of these data is that, despite all our efforts, rates of illness caused by these two foodborne pathogens have been stagnant, even showing occasional rises, in recent years.  

We need to find a way to reverse the trend, and if we are to do so, one thing is clear: we cannot continue regulating the poultry industry as we have.  FSIS can’t keep focusing on food quality assurance tasks – work that our food safety inspectors are currently doing – and simply cross our fingers, hoping that checking for extra feathers and bruises in chickens will make a dent in the rates of illnesses caused by Salmonella and Campylobacter.   We need all of our employees to be focused on a single purpose: to protect public health through food safety.   Our inspectors shouldn’t be doing a company’s quality assurance work.  They should be making sure that a company produces safe food.

Under our newly proposed inspection system, most inspectors who have performed quality control checks under our old system would perform food safety tasks that have been demonstrated to make your food safer, like making sure a company’s food safety plan is effective and conducting tests for the harmful pathogens which actually cause foodborne illness.

We started testing a new type of inspection system in a pilot program that began in 1999.  In these plants, Salmonella and Campylobacter contamination rates actually decreased quite quickly.  This refocused inspection works.

If we were to finalize our proposal and implement this new type of inspection system broadly, we would be enabling our employees to do more, and we as an Agency would be doing a better job, to fulfill our mission. We would still be in every poultry slaughter plant every day, inspecting every chicken that enters the food supply.  We would just be doing it better. 

I understand that in the course of this discussion, some have raised concerns for the workers in poultry plants.  They ask – if this new inspection system causes changes in the way that plants operate – will it make poultry plants more dangerous for the people who work there?

Let me be clear: USDA would never put forward a rule that would put anyone in harm’s way.  This is not a choice between food safety and worker safety.  The data that we have to date does not show any link between this new type of inspection system and increased risk for poultry industry employees or our own inspection personnel.  And as we evaluate next steps for this proposal, we are working with our federal partners to ensure that worker health isn’t harmed – and is in fact improved.

I don’t want to minimize the discussion about worker health.  We do need to have a discussion on the health of workers in the industry.  That discussion is underway.  While we as a food safety agency do not have the ability or expertise to regulate worker safety, we have been working closely with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health on important efforts to strengthen the federal government’s data collection and enforcement activities in this space.  These two federal agencies have the regulatory authority and expertise to improve worker safety. 

As a result of these efforts – and the discussion started by this proposed rule – we as a federal government are talking about worker health in the poultry industry in a way that we never have before.

Most importantly, our data show that we can make progress in meeting our mission and ensuring a safer food supply.  We have a major tool at our disposal to reduce foodborne illness, and this is but one of many ways that USDA is working hard to keep you safe from foodborne illness.  If you had the opportunity to save a life, to spare a mother or father from the agony of having a child in the hospital, wouldn’t you jump at the chance?

© Food Safety News
  • Tony Corbo

    The confusion lies with those who occupy the rarefied air in the Whitten Building. As Dr. Hagen knows, the food safety advocates have repeatedly told her that the proposed rule to privatize poultry inspection is a big industry give-away. Under the proposed rule, each poultry plant will set the testing protocol and USDA will not approve those new procedures in advance. Company employees beholden to the companies that employ them will replace independent USDA inspectors on the slaughter line and will be hard-pressed to slow-down or stop the lines as chicken carcasses whiz by them at 175 birds per minute because the bottom line will not be food safety but the company’s bottom line. The proposed rule explicitly states that company employees do not have to be trained before they take over USDA inspector jobs. USDA inspectors receive classroom training and on-the-job training to become proficient in poultry slaughter inspection. What is even more remarkable is that the background information supplied by FSIS that accompanied the proposed rule shows that for the latest salmonella testing data available, the salmonella rates of poultry slaughtered in the pilot plants using the privatized inspection model (called HIMP) was actually higher when compared to the salmonella rates in those comparably-sized plants using conventional USDA inspection. The risk assessment that accompanied the proposed rule conceded that no judgment could be made as to whether campylobacter rates would go up, down or remain the same using the the privatized inspection model. It is also interesting that Dr. Hagen does not reveal in her piece that the latest salmonella verification testing data posted by her agency shows that two of the HIMP pilot plants — the Tysons plant in Clarksville, Arkansas and the Golden Rod Broilers plant in Cullman, Alabama — failed to meet her agency’s salmonella performance standard. I do not see any FSIS press releases announcing that those plants will be kicked out of the HIMP pilot or made ineligible to continue using the privatized inspection model under the proposed rule.

    Food safety advocates have repeatedly told Dr. Hagen that if the real goal of FSIS was to reduce food borne pathogens in poultry, then it needed to have enforceable pathogen performance standards. FSIS does not have the legal authority to shut down a plant that does not meet the government’s salmonella or campylobacter performance standards. USDA needs to go to Congress to request that authority. The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act gives FDA the authority to have enforceable pathogen performance standards for the foods it regulates. Unfortunately, FDA currently does not have performance standards and at the pace it is taking the Obama Administration to implement that new law, it will be decades before those performance standards are set. But FSIS does have performance standards now and it does not have the legal juice to enforce them.

    The inspection system in the proposed rule will rely on Public Health Information System (PHIS) to guide the agency in its inspection decisions. Let me break the news to you: PHIS does not work and the $82 million that was spent to develop it was a waste of money. Besides receiving daily e-mails about problems with the system, I recently interviewed 27 FSIS inspectors in-depth about their experiences with PHIS. They reported a myriad of problems with PHIS, but two in particular stuck out to me. First, the sampling software does not work properly. Second, some of their supervisors are instructing them to record tasks into the system that were not actually performed because of pressure from up above to make it appear that PHIS is working. One cannot have a “data-driven” inspection system if you have no data or fraudulent data upon which to make inspection decisions.

    I will defer to the experts on the worker safety issues to respond directly to Dr. Hagen’s assertions on the health and safety issues posed by the proposed rule, but I would like to remind everyone that I tried to work in one of the HIMP plants as a company poultry sorter to experience what it was like to work in one of those plants. I was rebuffed by both Dr. Hagen and the poultry industry. I also applied to work as a temporary FSIS inspector in one of the HIMP plants, but I was rejected as being “overqualified.” I would strong recommend that Dr. Hagen and the other advocates of the proposed rule within the agency work on the slaughter line in a HIMP plant for a few weeks to see what it is actually like. Don’t rely on those phony two-hour VIP tours that the industry likes to give in those plants. Before passing judgment on what is safe or not, you should really experience what it is like to work in those plants.

    For all of these reasons, the Obama Administration needs to withdraw the proposed rule and send an amended appropriations request to Capitol Hill to restore funding to FSIS for FY 2014 so that FSIS inspectors are kept on the job to protect consumers. It should also send proposed legislation to Congress giving FSIS the legal authority to enforce pathogen performance standards.

  • doc raymond

    The Union will lose 750-800 members if this is enacted. That is about $400,000 in dues annually. Mr Corbo, Dr Hagen is being open and honest, so I ask you, do you receive any compensation from the Union? And if so, how much and for serving in what capacity?
    It is past time to look at the overall success in the HIMP plants and move forward. Your own Food and Water Watch was quoted last week in a Mother Jones story that the number one problem in HIMP plants was a higher rate of dressing failures, such as feathers. I have never seen a feather on chicken I have bought at retail. If I did I simply would not buy that brand again. Dressing issues are quality control, not food safety issues. Feathers won’t kill me, but salmonella might. You can slow line speeds all you want, but give an inspector an hour for each bird and they still won’t see Salmonella if it is present. Let’s put the inspectors in positions to use their brains and protect us and stop using tax dollars to pay them to look for feathers and broken bones, doing quality control for the industry. .

  • doc raymond

    Excellent OpEd. Thanks, Dr. Hagen, and thanks FSN for posting it.

  • James

    The irony is that OIRA probably subjected this epistle to more intense scrutiny than was applied to your agency’s fundamentally flawed proposed rule.

  • Doc Charles

    As anyone who works or has worked in a poultry slaughter plant knows, the only time FSIS inspectors look for feathers and broken bones is when they are working the floor and performing finished product standard testing at a station positioned past online inspection. The inspectors who perform online inspection are responsible for identifying pathology (septicemia, toxemia, airsacculitis, hepatitis, pericarditis, synovitis, etc.) and having it removed from the food chain. To say, as Dr. Hagen and Mr. Almanza have said many times, that the job performed by online inspectors is that of identifying dressing defects is both insulting and very inaccurate.

  • moises benmuhar

    Good for the overall health of
    USA population regarding poultry but what about the other foods specially those that are packaged in USA and come from other countries where sanitation practices are not to par with
    USA STANDARDS. In many instances products do not show country of origin.WE ARE AT THE MERCY OF IMPORTERS,PACKAGERS,
    DISTRIBUTORS ETC.
    In this Globalized Planet we
    must protect our CITIZENS FIRST and then The business
    catering to the population !!