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Top food safety officials tell IAFP audience pathogens don’t wait

SALT LAKE CITY — Several hundred people attending the International Association for Food Protection annual conference Monday gave up lunch to hear Stephen Ostroff’s and Carmen Rottenberg’s updates on the federal regulatory scene.

And Ostroff wasted no time in serving up the main course. The Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine at FDA is not happy about the round of outbreaks in recent months, including two E. coli O157 outbreaks that caused a total of six deaths.

“Events of the last couple of months support that we have a food safety problem in the United States,” Ostroff said, referring mostly to the produce-related E. coli O157 outbreaks, but also to several involving various Salmonella strains.

Specifically, FDA’s top food safety official expressed his concern about these outbreaks:

  • Romaine lettuce – E. coli O157: H7
  • Leafy greens – E. coli O157: H7
  • Kellogg’s Honey Smacks cereal – Salmonella
  • Pre-cut melon – Salmonella Adelaide
  • Eggs – Salmonella Braenderup
  • Kratom – Salmonella

Taken together, those outbreaks have sickened at least 622 people, sending 224 to hospitals where six died. The Salmonella Braenderup outbreak was also marked by Rose Acre Farms recalling 207 million shell eggs

Ostroff said the transition period before full implementation of certain elements of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) can be blamed for the rash of outbreaks. Congress passed the Act in 2010 and President Obama signed it into law in January 2011.

“The pathogens are not waiting for us,” he said.

Ostroff told the attendees at the food safety conference that America’s food supply is becoming more and more complicated, making tracing up and down the food chain difficult.

FDA experienced that problem in spades during the E. coli O157: H7 outbreak investigation involving romaine lettuce. It was left warning the public not to consume romaine lettuce from the Yuma, AZ, growing area, but Ostroff acknowledged most consumers had no way of telling where their romaine was grown. The FDA hasn’t closed the investigation yet, and is continuing to work with Arizona officials and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to connect the remaining dots between the growing fields and consumers.

FDA eventually linked the romaine contamination to a Yuma area irrigation canal but does not yet know how the E. coli O157: H7 got into the water.

The FSMA’s produce rule, which includes easy greens, became effective in January this year, but only for the largest growers. FDA is also holding off on the FSMA water quality rule as it relates to testing requirements  because of industry push back. FDA hopes to work out water testing protocols acceptable to farmers for implementation in 2022.

Ostroff also said there is some potential for conflict between food defense and food safety. “Food safety always takes precedence,” he said.

Rottenberg, USDA’s Acting Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety and Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) administrator, spoke alongside Ostroff.

She said FSIS continues with its modernization program, which has focused on poultry and swine production.

FSIS is also working on regulatory reform, following up on suggestions from the public and industry. Rottenberg said one suggestion calls for changing how “net weight” is shown on a label. Currently, net weight must be shown in both ounces and pounds.

Eggs now classified as inferior by FDA might in the future be used if pasteurized, the FSIS administrator said. She said the idea was advanced as a method of cutting down on food waste.

Rottenberg was appointed Acting Deputy Under Secretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office for Food Safety in August 2017. She is serving in that role until the Senate decides whether to confirm Mindy Brashears as President Trump’s appointee to the post. Rottenberg was named FSIS Administrator in May. She has held several other leadership roles in FSIS’s Office of the Administrator, including the Chief Operating Officer and Chief of Staff.

In those roles, she has spearheaded FSIS efforts to modernize inspection systems and implement science-based and innovative solutions to better protect consumers from foodborne illnesses. Through her leadership, she has ensured that FSIS programs are consumer-focused and delivered efficiently, effectively and with integrity. Rottenberg holds a Bachelor’s Degree from Hope College and a Juris Doctorate from American University. She will continue to serve as Acting Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety until a nominee for this position has been confirmed by the Senate.

Ostroff joined FDA in 2013 as Chief Medical Officer in the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition and Senior Public Health Advisor to FDA’s Office of Foods and Veterinary Medicine. Prior to that, he served as Deputy Director of the National Center for Infectious Diseases at CDC. While at CDC Ostroff focused on emerging infectious diseases, food safety, and coordination of complex outbreak responses. Ostroff has also served as the acting FDA Commissioner on two occasions, from April 2015 to late February 2016 and again from January to May 2017.

He retired from the Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service at the rank of Rear Admiral (Assistant Surgeon General). Ostroff was also the Director of the Bureau of Epidemiology and Acting Physician General for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and has consulted internationally on public health projects in South Asia and Latin America.

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