A conversation with our nation’s highest ranking food safety official, Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, Under Secretary for Food Safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, on the agency’s landmark new policy on non-O157 STECs.

Hagen300px.jpgQ: Can you give us a little bit of the background – some of the back story or detail that we maybe haven’t heard – on how the non-O157 policy was developed?

A: It’s been going on for longer, I think, than most people realize. I started my job at USDA in March of 2006. A month after that, we had some illness cases of O103 in New York and we thought they might have been connected to beef. It started a series of inquiries: We just started asking around: How are states handling this? What kind of surveillance is out there? And how come this state does it differently from that state? One of our microbiologists had done a white paper on this issue in general, on this whole group of non-O157s, a couple years prior.

We just started digging. How much of this was out there? Over the course of the next year, we worked more and more on that, and eventually presented it to Dr. Raymond who was the under secretary at the time. The first time we talked about it in public was probably that public meeting we had in October 2007. We brought together the clinical perspective, we brought an international perspective in, because other countries had dealt with outbreaks we hadn’t yet dealt with, that we knew of, and we also brought in the state perspective.

We were learning that the states that were looking for it, the states that were doing special research projects, were finding non-O157 STECs in really significant numbers. And in some cases much higher numbers than O157.

We’ve been talking about this for a long, long time. We recognized that there were hurdles to overcome before we could develop a policy. We didn’t have any detection capabilities, either for our labs, or commercial detection kits available.

I think some people think this is some new idea that we’ve pushed through very quickly, but we’ve actually been extremely methodical about this. We spent two years working with [Agricultural Research Service] so that we would have the right technology. People know how to find these bugs, but to find them in meat, and to be able to find them in a rapid turnaround, while not having a massive impact on production — that took a lot of work.

We knew there was a lot to overcome, but once we got those things in place, then the data just kept adding up. CDC released new burden estimates for the first time in a decade and non-O157 was showing up at twice the rate of O157. The FoodNet data came out for 2009 and it was very clear that things were on the upswing, and then the 2010 numbers for the first time ever showed non-O157 exceeding O157.

Q: Considering the legwork that went into this, were you surprised by the very public push back from the industry, which argues that this isn’t needed, it won’t benefit public health, and it will impact trade?

A: They weren’t surprising at the beginning. I’ll say it’s surprising now. There are so many great leaders in the industry who are totally headed in the right direction on this. It’s surprising now, in that a small group continues to advocate against our ability to protect consumers from something we know doesn’t belong in the food supply.

In the beginning, industry had a lot of questions: How strong is the science? What is this going to mean for us? How much is this going to cost us? Is this really going to help? I don’t think we were that surprised about the questions. And I think there really have been a lot of very quiet, but very proactive, players in the industry all along. I think we’re getting to the right place.

Q: So you’re feeling confident about the policy kicking in in June?

A: Yes. The question was never about our capacity, we’ve been ready to go for quite some time. The question has been — and it’s a fair question — if the idea behind the policy is to encourage the industry to take the steps they need to to keep these organisms out of the food supply, and if they’re not comfortable with their ability to target these organisms and their ability to keep them away from consumers, will the policy be as meaningful as it was intended to be?

It was the right thing to do to give folks a little bit more time. I don’t think that they need more time, but these things evolve. It’s not to say that the way that we start is the way that we end, but we have to start somewhere.

Q:  How much discussion has there been on the trade implications, could this potentially be a WTO issue?

A: I’m not going to say it’s irrelevant. We’re the food safety people, we’re not the trade people. So we have to maintain those kinds of lines and walls around what we do, but it’s not that it’s irrelevant.

The question that we had to answer in terms of trade was: Do we have a scientific basis for what we’re doing? I think there’s been this notion out there that you have to have a certain set of supporting documents or you have to have a certain framework that will suffice to answer that question. In fact, what’s required is that we have a scientific basis for what we’re doing — that we’re not doing something protectionist.

We’re tackling a domestic challenge, first and foremost, and as you know the way equivalency works is that importing nations are going to have to meet the same challenges we’re meeting.

It’s something we definitely have to think about, but I think we’re in a good place. I’m not concerned about us not being able to stand behind the scientific basis of our decision-making.

See Food Safety News tomorrow for Part II of our conversation with Dr. Hagen on pink slime, labeling, and what’s next for the agency.

This Q&A has been edited for length and readability.