The nation’s highest-ranking food safety official laid out the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s vision for strengthening the food safety system to better “meet the demands of the 21st century” before the annual American Farm Bureau meeting.

“No one … no one … is more important to that farm-to-fork system than you,” said Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety, in her remarks Sunday at the conference in Atlanta.  Hagen emphasized that her agency would be reaching out to every part of the farm-to-fork continuum–from farmers to processors to consumers–in an effort to modernize the federal oversight of meat, poultry, and processed egg products, which make up 20 percent of the American food supply.

“USDA, FDA and other agencies have an opportunity right now to make this food safety system the kind of 21st century system we want it to be.  To do that, public health has to be at the heart of our legislative authorities, our regulations, and every administrative action that we take,” said Hagen, adding that the Food Safety and Inspection Service would emphasize measuring results.

“We want to do those things that will truly impact public health and prevent foodborne illnesses, so we have to measure how we’re doing,” said Hagen. “And we have to work smarter, more efficiently with our resources.”

Hagen also discussed food safety’s profound impact on trade and the overall economy, calling science-based food safety the “foundation of trade.”

“Right now, agriculture is leading this nation’s recovery.  American farm exports totaled more than $108 billion in the last fiscal year, and if current projections hold, this year will be another record year for exports,” she explained.  “Agriculture is one of the few major economic sectors running a trade surplus, and it’s one that we want to continue to see thrive…”

USDA’s food safety policies under FSIS will not formally extend onto farms, Hagen told the audience: “If we’re going to have a frank conversation about food safety, I also have to say something else here.  Our jurisdiction begins at the point of slaughter.  But we know that the condition of these animals at slaughter, the contamination rates on their hides and elsewhere, impact the ability of the rest of the system to handle the risk.  That’s the reality.”

“And that means that preharvest food safety has got to be a part of the discussion,” she said, quick to note that while FSIS has “no control” over what happens before food animals reach slaughterhouses, the agency would still like to collaborate with experts and stakeholders to promote effective preharvest interventions.  “It’s the right thing to do for all of our benefit.  It’s treating pathogens the way they occur:  throughout the food system.”

Hagen’s remarks largely echoed her first public speech in September at the Nation Food Policy Conference in Washington, D.C.  She covered the same priorities for the agency, including improving traceback to help prevent illnesses and make recalls more accurate, strengthening adherence to human handling laws, and launching the new Public Health Information System to improve data collection and analysis.

“PHIS will be a way for us to gather and make better use of the enormous amount of data obtained in the more than 6 000 plants we regulate,” explained Hagen.  “That data, in turn, helps us make better decisions to keep food safe.”

Michael Taylor, Associate Commissioner for Foods at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration–the agency charged with overseeing the other 80 percent of the food supply–joined Hagen for the presentation and answered questions from the audience.  As the FDA begins implementing the new food safety law, Taylor said that FDA would begin setting food safety standards and holding importers accountable for ensuring the safety of food produced overseas.

According to The Hagstrom Report, a Farm Bureau member from North Carolina asked Taylor whether the new food safety law would give foreign producers a competitive advantage. Taylor said that the FDA would actually be making a “real shift of inspection of foreign products.”

Hagen’s entire speech is available here.