At the risk of sounding naive, Michael Taylor said Tuesday that he’s still feeling “great” about the progress made on the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). As Deputy Commissioner for Foods at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Taylor knew he was in front of a tough audience since he said it during a question-and-answer session with a room full of food policy wonks at the 2015 National Food Policy Conference in Washington, D.C.

Michael Taylor, left, Deputy Commissioner for Foods at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and Brian Ronholm, Deputy Under Secretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.
But Taylor wasn’t the only head of a food safety agency on stage. He was joined by Brian Ronholm, Deputy Under Secretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), as well as moderator Jason Huffman, agriculture and trade editor for POLITICO. The two men, along with FSIS Deputy Under Secretary Al Almanza (who shares the title with Ronholm), are the highest-ranking food safety officials in the country, and their discussion covered a range of high-profile food safety topics from Salmonella adulteration in chicken to labeling of mechanically tenderized beef. FSMA Leading off by answering a status update question about FSMA, the most wide-reaching reform of food safety laws in more than 70 years, Taylor said that all the law’s rules will be finalized this year. Though implementation of the law has seen significant delays since being signed by President Obama in January 2011, Taylor reiterated that his agency is continuing to make progress. That said, he noted that underfunding from Congress has been challenging, and FDA is still “way short” of what it needs to implement FSMA successfully. “If we don’t get the money, we don’t have a trained workforce that has made the culture shift, the philosophical shift and technical shift to be able to inspect well for food safety and also consistency,” Taylor said. The state departments of agriculture will also play a big role in inspections under FSMA — a prospect that still needs significant funding. And beyond the domestic picture, import verification programs are still lacking necessary funds as well. “It’s a daunting thing to fulfill the vision of having an import safety system that ensures consumers that we’re getting the same level of protection with imports as we do with domestic products,” Taylor said. “We don’t have the resources in hand to do that.” Still, the agency is moving forward, Taylor said. Within a year of rules being finalized, the first large-scale facilities will be coming into compliance. Eventually, the whole food system will be operating on a more consistent foundation, he said. The most noticeable improvement? It’ll likely be the new import verification system, which “really strengthens foreign supply chain management.” Salmonella as an adulterant Huffman pressed Ronholm about FSIS’s position on considering Salmonella an adulterant in raw poultry, similar to how the agency considers several E. coli strains adulterants in ground beef. The nonprofit consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has long been petitioning FSIS to declare antibiotic-resistant Salmonella an adulterant in poultry. Ronholm explained that the interpretation of why E. coli is an adulterant in ground beef but Salmonella isn’t adulterating poultry stems from past court cases. “There are several ways to cook a burger: rare, medium, well-done. In the court’s mind, because there are several ways, it’s possible to not cook E. coli out of a burger,” Ronholm said. “Now look at poultry. In the court’s mind, there’s only one way to cook a chicken. You cook it to 165 degrees and it kills the Salmonella.” “Because ordinary cooking is able to kill Salmonella, in the court’s mind, it cannot be declared an adulterant,” he added. Antibiotics use in animal agriculture FDA has gotten every drug company that sells a medically useful animal drug for growth and prevention purposes to agree to remove those purposes from the label by the end of 2016, effectively making it illegal to use those drugs for the purpose of growth and prevention without the oversight of a veterinarian, Taylor said. He said that it’s not the final step in getting industry to judiciously use medically important antibiotics, but it’s the quickest way to initiate a change. “I think society has turned the corner on this issue. This process is certainly part of that,” Taylor said. While USDA is not the primary agency to be overseeing the use of drugs in livestock, Ronholm said that it’s incumbent on the agency to pool its research resources to perform surveillance on the effects of antibiotic use in animal agriculture. Taylor was quick to emphasize that many uses of antibiotics in agriculture are judicious and necessary to keep animals healthy. “There are legitimate uses of antibiotics for disease treatment that are within our judicious-use principles,” he said. Mechanically tenderized beef Huffman asked Ronholm for an update on labeling rules for mechanically tenderized beef. At the end of 2014, USDA missed its window to finalize its labeling rules in time for them to be implemented by 2016, making 2018 the earliest we’re now likely to see labels on mechanically tenderized beef products. Earlier this year, however, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that the agency was still working to ensure mechanically tenderized beef labeling by 2016, despite missing the deadline. According to Ronholm, USDA is still trying to make that happen. The rule is still under review at the White House Office of Management and Budget, he said. “It’s certainly something we’re focused on and hoping to get out and published within the next couple months,” Ronholm said. Impact of new trade agreements on FSMA import rules When Huffman opened up the Q&A to questions from the audience, the first came from Food & Water Watch senior lobbyist Tony Corbo, who asked how FDA’s import agenda will be impacted by an increase in imports from two new free trade agreements — the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Corbo pointed out that in an earlier conference session, another FDA representative stated that the number of import line entries has already increased from 200,000 in the mid-1990s to 14 million today. Taylor agreed that the agency has a lot of work to do, saying that he was most hopeful about the aspects of the importer verification program that involve physical inspections of foreign suppliers. However, FDA “isn’t a trade agency,” he added, implying that he wasn’t the best person to answer the question. “We’ve got to deal with the world as it is, and we’ve got a regulatory framework and we need resources to implement it to provide assurances to people,” Taylor said. Controlling Salmonella One of the session’s final questions came from Patricia Buck, co-founder of the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention. She challenged Ronholm on the topics of mechanically tenderized beef and the classification of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella as an adulterant on raw poultry, and she also pointed out that some strains of Salmonella attached to muscle aren’t killed at the recommend cooking temperature and instead need to be cooked to almost 180 degrees. “I would like to better understand why FSIS and USDA have not taken the necessary steps to control antibiotic-resistant Salmonella as adulterants in food, and I would like to know why we have not — after five years — been able to get mechanically tenderized beef labeling through all of the various regulatory processes,” she said, to a small burst of applause from the audience. Ronholm first said that Salmonella was a source of “extreme frustration” for FSIS. That’s why the agency released its Salmonella Action Plan in 2013, he said. “Yeah, [Salmonella] is something that really upsets us, and we’re not seeing the reductions we’d like to see,” Ronholm said. “So the way we’re trying to do it is to combat Salmonella as a whole.” The National Food Policy Conference is organized by the Consumer Federation of America. This is the 38th annual conference, which is held each year in Washington, D.C.