Part II of 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.

Hagen300px.jpgQ: The agency’s decision to declare six non-O157 STECs adulterants was a big development. Now you’ve been petitioned to declare certain strains of drug-resistant Salmonella adulterants – can we expect a response on that anytime soon?

A: One could argue that Salmonella is the biggest challenge that those who work in food safety have. 

There’s not going to be any single initiative that is going to make this problem go away. We’re going to have to chip away at this, piece by piece.

We’re doing a lot. Poultry modernization gets us there, new performance standards gets us there — we’re always thinking about what we can do on Salmonella because we have to keep moving forward on that.

We need to just do a better job on Salmonella reduction, period. Whether it’s multi-drug resistant or whether it’s susceptible Salmonella, we need to figure out how to reduce it, across the board, in the products that we regulate and certainly in products across the food supply.

As far as the petition goes, that’s a big question. We’re not going to answer a big question like that without engaging in a public process. There are some very real, tangible, technical concerns with moving forward on a petition like that. For instance, right now, it just takes too much time to get susceptibility test results back. You have to think about what that means: How do you manage all of that product while you’re waiting to get results? I think the system currently, on multiple levels, isn’t designed to handle something like that.

There are a lot of ways we can start to get at this issue. I can’t give you a determination on where we’ll head with that petition, but this a big issue and we’re not going to make a decision hastily or without a lot of input from a broad array of stakeholders.

Q: Going back to poultry modernization, you mentioned both the food safety and saving resources angle… I’m sure you’ve seen Food & Water Watch’s report that argued USDA inspectors are better at finding quality defects than company inspectors are. What would you say to consumers who have questions about what this means for poultry?

A: This is first and foremost about public health. This has been going on for a long time. It’s not as if this is something we just thought of because of budget constraints. The pilot’s been going on for more than a dozen years. The idea is that we need to be focused on what puts consumers at risk and what we know potentially causes harm in the food supply in 2012, not the risks we thought we had 100 years ago. Our focus needs to be on what you can’t see.

The inspection system was designed at a time when we thought the greatest risk was disease animals getting into the food supply. We can do better than that now. We know what we need to be focused on is looking at whether the system they’ve set up is actually doing what it’s supposed to do. What are the trends in the testing data? Are they meeting critical control points? These are things that actually make consumers safer.

It’s not to say that there’s not a role for USDA to play in some of this sorting, but these are primarily marketability issues. Anybody who knows food safety and anybody who’s truly interested in moving the ball forward, would agree that we should be focused on things that actually make consumers safer.

Q: So you’re confident that companies will step in and take care of the quality issues on their own?

A: Well, what company has an advantage when they put cosmetically unappealing products in the market place? None of them. There’s a lot in the report that Food & Water Watch put out that, there’s a lot of detail that I think we can respond to very easily. We have an extensive HIMP report in the proposed rule where we actually did a comparison group and Food & Water Watch doesn’t. You could argue that our inspectors are finding things before they’re going into commerce. We’ve still got somebody looking at what’s happening in this HIMP system. It’s not as if we’ve completely eliminated that function.

Q: And there are lower levels of Campylobacter and Salmonella?

A: Yes. Where this pilot has been put into place, we’ve found that not only do the HIMP plants across the board do better at meeting performance standards. We’ve also found that the aggregate data shows we have lower contamination rates.

We start with common sense and we ask: Where should we be focusing at this point in time? And then we back it up our experience with this program for the past 13, 14 years. We’ve got the data from that, we know have these plants performing, and we have quantitative peer-reviewed risk assessment that models what will happen if we take people off this line and we focus them on these public health-related tasks.

We started off trying to prove that this system was at least as good as the old system and that there wouldn’t be any harm done in moving people off the line and we did better than that. We think this is actually a better system.

Q: I have to ask you about ‘pink slime.’ This issue has gotten so much attention over the last week — it’s really astounding. As a mom yourself, can you understand the concern here? Parents have serious questions about what’s in the ground beef being served to kids and they seem to be upset by the lack of choice here.

A: First, remember I’m the food safety lady so I think about the food safety aspect of it. In talking about that, it’s important to distinguish people’s concerns about the idea of this sort of product and not having known before what’s going into their food or how it’s being processed – separating those things from the safety concerns, because that’s really not the issue here.

We do feel that this is safe. It’s been used for a long time. Ammonium hydroxide itself is used in a multitude of different  food products. It’s not a safety concern. I think it’s the idea of this product that is troublesome to people. Just being honest, I don’t think your average consumer probably knows a lot about how food is produced. I understand that they have questions. They didn’t know that this was going into their food before. I think it would be more productive to be able to educate people about this.

Q: It seems to me the larger issue here is labeling and transparency. As you said, ammonium hydroxide is widely used. Last time I checked, FSIS has a 52-page list of substances or interventions allowed in meat production and most of them do not have to be labeled. As this conversation continues, is labeling something the agency would look at again – that some of these substances might be labeled as ingredients?

A: There’s a whole legal and regulatory framework that we work within, in terms of what’s considered an ingredient and what’s considered an additive. With this product, we consider this to be beef. We don’t label any of the other components that go into ground beef either. We start with beef, there’s a treatment that’s applied, and it ends up as beef. There’s certainly some consideration in terms of being more transparent with the school lunch program so school districts can make choices. Sure we’re open to the discussion, but, as I said, it’s an existing legal framework we work within as far as what is considered an additive and what needs to be on the label.

As you mentioned, there are a lot of interventions. There are lot of things that go into the production of food and to sort of single this
one out and to say that this one needs to be labeled — that doesn’t seem like a very even handed approach.

Q: What’s the hardest part of your job?

A: In general, just the sheer size and scope of the responsibility. When you look at the numbers and when you look at the profound impact we have on the health and wellbeing on everyday Americans — that’s what weighs on me the most. In terms of what’s the hardest, very few things are clear cut. There are subtleties and nuances to everything and even ideas that seem like they are obviously right thing to do are a lot more complicated than folks let on. Sometimes the debate can be pretty polarized. Navigating all of that can be tough, but at the end of the day, there are no anti-safe food people. Everybody believes that food needs to be safe, but trying to get these very broad and sometimes opposite perspectives together to do something productive can be challenging. It’s a big job and there are no easy answers.

Q: I ask everyone this – what do you eat? Is there anything you won’t eat?

A: No, the things I don’t eat are out of personal preference. I eat ground beef — everyone wants to know that. I do. My children eat ground beef, but we use a meat thermometer. We always use a meat thermometer, we’re really, really vigilant about that. I don’t do raw oysters, but I’m an omnivore. I eat it all.


See Part I of this interview, on USDA’s new non-O157 STEC policy here.

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


Image of rod-shaped Salmonella bacteria under a colorized scanning electron micrograph by Janice Haney Carr, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention