Tuesday’s schedule at the International Association for Food Protection (IAFP) annual meeting in Portland, OR, featured the “Mike and Al Show” competing with lunch, but there still was a large crowd at the Oregon Convention Center to hear two of the nation’s top food safety officials. Mike Taylor, Deputy FDA Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine, and Al Almanza, Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety at USDA, each gave a few remarks before opening themselves to questions. It was not long into the questioning before someone was trying to get a rise out of them.

Mike Taylor (left) and Al Almanza spoke Tuesday at the IAFP annual meeting in Portland, OR.
Taylor said FDA is “on track” to finally implement the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) as the series of final rules kick in beginning in August and continuing through early 2016. “The future is now,” Taylor said. FSMA was signed into law in January 2011 by President Obama. Since then, Taylor has led FDA’s work to make the law a reality. “We feel really good about the regulations,” Taylor told the gathering of government, industry and academic food safety professionals meeting in the Rose City since Saturday. He said the agency is looking forward to getting the final rules “out the door.” FSMA represents the biggest reform in food safety in the U.S. in 70 years. It was passed by a bipartisan majority in Congress in late 2010. As the release dates for the final rules approach, Taylor said FDA’s focus is already turning to implementation. He expressed concern about three areas. The first is FDA’s own workforce. Taylor said FDA has to transform itself from the enforcement model, where staff members are just looking for infractions, to one where FDA is looking at a food company’s overall safety system and whether it is effective in preventing foodborne illnesses. The other two areas of concern he referenced are FDA’s relationships with state health and agriculture departments and food imports. “We’ve accepted a whole new strategic approach,” Taylor explained. “Folks making food want to make it safe.” He said he does not envision FDA being on the farm with any regularity under the new produce rule. “We have to invest in the states,” he said. That brought him around to FDA’s need for more 2016 funding from Congress. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) figured the agency would need $580 million over five years to implement FSMA, but so far they’ve only received 28 percent of that. The Obama administration’s budget request for 2016 would increase the amount to about 50 percent of the original CBO figure. If FDA does not get that, Taylor said state funding and the work needed on imports won’t happen. “We just want to be crystal clear about this budget,” he added. For his part, Almanza provided a series of short updates on work underway at USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), including the implementation of the new poultry rule and next year’s planned regulation of mechanical tenderization. Almanza also said the recent requirement for retail stores to keep grinder’s logs was prompted by the fact that, from 2007-2013, there were 74 ground beef recalls and 31 involved grinding at the retail level. Then came audience questions, including one by Carl Custer, a former FSIS official. First Custer noted that Brian Ronholm, the other Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety at USDA, had recently suggested that Salmonella in chicken is not an adulterant because poultry all needs to be cooked to the same temperature and then had gone on to explain that E. coli O157:H7 was declared an adulterant in hamburger because ground beef is often cooked to varying temperatures. Custer’s question for Almanza: Then should Salmonella in ground beef be declared an adulterant? Laughter all around. After some stumbling, Almanza decided that Taylor, who had Almanza’s  job during the Clinton administration (when he was first to declare O157:H7 an adulterant and banned it from beef) should have decided the thorny Salmonella issues back then. Laughter all around again. It’s what passed for humor on the final day of the group’s annual meeting.

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  • Kudos to Taylor for moving the FDA from an enforcement model where staff members are just looking for infractions and acknowledging that the establishments making food want to make it safe. No kudos for Almanza, whose organization seems unable to shed it policeman mentality; citing enforcement actions taken as evidence of protecting public health, and casting the meat, poultry, and egg products industry as individuals who place profits ahead of consumer safety.

    • Miles

      Please provide an example of how FSIS is “casting the meat, poultry and egg products industry as individuals who place profits ahead of consumer safety.”
      I’ll bet you can’t.

      • Miles:

        If you are asking for an example in print, where FSIS official identifies the meat, poultry, and egg industry as individuals who place profits ahead of consumer safety, that I cannot provide. FSIS is not so foolish as to make such a public proclamation.

        As a retired FSIS employee of 30+ years, I could give you specific examples where I sat in meetings and witnesses this attitude play out in policy and enforcement decisions. Do not ask me to name names because I won’t. I consider the individuals involved, many who are former co-workers, to be good people operating within a bad culture.

        If you want facts and details, I am not going to do your research for you, but I will tell you where to start. On the FSIS website, you will find a pages listing enforcement actions taken. There you will find quarterly enforcement and humane handling reports. On the USDA Office of Administrative Law Judges page you will find consent decisions issues. Neither one of these pages will provide the details you seek. You have to dig. You have to use the Freedom of information Act to gain access to official documents and correspondence behind these actions. Focus on suspensions not placed in abeyance and complaints filed with the Secretary to remind a grant of inspection. These represent plant that FSIS has shut down. I am not saying that the suspensions and complaints have no basis. In most of these plants, legitimate problems requiring enforcement action exist. What I am saying, is that once FSIS has a plant shut down, its focus is not on returning to the establishment to compliance. Its focus is on obstructing the plants ability to return to compliance. How does that play out? You will have to track down the documents and see for yourself. Yes I have such documents. No, I will not share them with you. However, if you want to talk about it, we can do that.