The nation’s top food safety official, Under Secretary for Food Safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Elisabeth Hagen, outlined food safety policies in the pipeline at the agency before an audience of meat processing food safety experts. Hagen said USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service is working to “retool” the U.S. Department of Agriculture food safety system for the future.

“There are still far too many people getting sick from the food they eat–48 million too many. And of those, 128,000 have to be hospitalized and 3,000 of them die,” said Hagen Friday at the North American Meat Processors Association annual management conference in Chicago. “That’s unacceptable. We can do better. We have to do better. And that goes for all of us, regulators and industry alike.”

Citing a strong motivation to improve public health, Hagen outlined a number of FSIS initiatives aimed at improving meat safety oversight. Generally, Hagen emphasized the need for a stronger food safety culture across the food industry.

“We have to make food safety a core principle of the way food is produced in this country. It needs to be a corporate value, embraced by every company officer and every employee on the line,” she said.

Hagen discussed the importance of improving traceback in the meat industry and noted that FSIS was working to improve its testing program. “We’re considering what other ways we can use that valuable information from our testing program to make smarter decisions that protect public health,” she explained, noting that improvements are in the works.

She also explained that FSIS was committed to getting the HACCP validation guidance right–so that industry could be clear on expectations and regulations. “I know there’s been some concern about that guidance; I want to put those concerns to rest. We’ve heard from stakeholders across the spectrum on the draft document, and we’re reviewing that input carefully to issue a better version in the future.”

Consumer advocates are encouraged by the direction Hagen is taking the agency. “We are very impressed by Hagen’s speech and that she gave it at NAMP,” said Carol Tucker-Foreman, former under secretary at USDA and distinguished food policy fellow at the Consumer Federation of America. “It seems to me she is very good at stepping outside the narrow boundaries of ‘industry think.’

“We have the leadership, support, and knowledge to take a smarter, more efficient approach to preventing foodborne illnesses. To build the 21st century food safety system that industry needs and consumers deserve. To have a system that puts prevention first,” she added. “Right now, we have the chance to make an impact.”