The Food Safety and Inspection Service will focus on being “one step ahead” of Shiga-toxin producing E. coli (STEC) and antimicrobial-resistant pathogens, Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, Under Secretary for Food Safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, told a conference of food safety experts Tuesday.

The overwhelming theme of Dr. Hagen’s address, her third since she was confirmed in August, was shifting her agency toward prevention and away from reaction–a theme that echos the recently enacted FDA Food Safety Modernization Act.

“We know, with certainty, that [STEC] are a public health risk,” said Hagen at the event, which was hosted by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “E. coli O157:H7 caught us unprepared in 1993, when a large outbreak in ground beef caused illness in 400 people and tragically, the death of four children.

“We reacted,” explained Hagen, adding that the USDA’s reactionary food safety policies had “been worthwhile.”

“But while we were making progress with O157, we learned a great deal more about non-O157 STECs. According to CDC, these pathogens cause an estimated 36,700 illnesses, 1,100 hospitalizations and 30 deaths in this country each year. And currently, they’re not explicitly addressed by our policies.

“In order to be a truly prevention-based food safety system, we need to stay one step ahead of these threats,” added Hagen. “We should not wait for a public health emergency to force our hand to address the range of E. coli threats in ground beef that exist in 2011.”

Hagen also discussed the complex challenge presented by antimicrobial-resistant pathogens and called for a complex, multi-agency and multi-sector response.

“There’s been a lot of debate about how to control antibiotic-resistant bacteria, but one thing is clear: any policies or decisions, especially regulatory policies or decisions, must be based in science, not our natural inclination or beliefs,” said Hagen. “The issue of emerging antimicrobial resistance is a complex one. While the use of antibiotics in the agricultural sector is a concern, it is not the only concern. There is clearly an issue with antibiotic use in human medicine that requires scrutiny as well.”

Hagen reiterated her agency’s commitment to improving data collection and analysis and working with stakeholders to help reduce the growing problem of resistance.

“Prevention isn’t just one person or group’s responsibility; it’s a shared one,” said Hagen. “It’s shared among producers, government and the food service industry at large. And it’s something we can’t achieve without the input of scientists or our stakeholders.

Under Secretary Hagen did not indicate specific timelines for her upcoming prevention strategies, nor did she take questions after her remarks. A copy of her remarks are available on the USDA website. Her next public speech is scheduled for the National Turkey Federation Annual Conference in Tuscon, AZ in mid-February.