LOUISVILLE, KY — New blood in the nation’s top two food safety jobs is promising a new era of food safety in the United States as the FDA and USDA  continue to work on everything from romaine lettuce to ground turkey.

Frank Yiannas, deputy commissioner for food policy and response at the Food and Drug Administration, and Mindy Brashears deputy undersecretary for food safety as the U.S. Department of Agriculture discussed the work of the two agencies in an update for the International Association for Food Protection Monday at the group’s annual conference here.

Yiannas started with the FDA in December 2018 amidst the second foodborne illness outbreak involving romaine lettuce this past year. Brashears was sworn in early this year as the poultry and beef industries were still reeling from major outbreaks and recalls in 2018. 

Both said their respective agencies and industry across the food industry need to do a better job of protecting the public from foodborne pathogens. Both have specific plans on how to achieve that.

FDA’s new era of food safety

“Smarter food safety isn’t just a slogan,” Yiannas said. 

One of our food system’s major problems is traceability, the FDA deputy commissioner said. Improving the ability to track down where suspect food came from is crucial in an outbreak situation and Yiannas said technology is the way to achieve that. The days of paper records and people with clipboards are on the way out.

In his previous job as global head of food safety for Walmart Yiannas got hooked on the blockchain concept. He says it allows traceability at the speed of thought. It’s possible and Yiannas knows it from his work at Walmart where his team reduced traceability time from 6 days, 18 hours and 26 minutes to 2.3 seconds during the development of a blockchain program for sliced mangoes.

Yiannas said there’s a lot of room for more technology in the food industry. He cited whole-genome sequencing, artificial intelligence and the internet of things as the best tools for the future of food safety. But he is realistic about the situation and knows government and industry can only do so much.

“Food safety culture begins on the farm and ends in the home,” Yiannas said, placing some responsibility on consumers. But he said government and industry can change consumer behaviors with a better effort in terms of consumer education.

In addition to discussing the overall approach to food safety that the FDA’s new era of food safety is pursuing, Yiannas ticked off four areas the agency is looking at closely:

Fresh produce safety: With the two romaine lettuce outbreaks in 2018, government and industry learned a lot about the contamination of surface irrigation water and are working to enact new testing and treatment.

Cyclospora: Previously associated mainly with fresh produce from other countries, the parasite was found in domestic produce for the first time in 2018. That finding has the FDA on a mission to mitigate the creatures before they become a bigger problem.

Intentional adulteration: A new rule is going into effect in the coming days and Yiannas said strict enforcement will be coming with it.

Food imports: Overall, at least 15 percent of all food consumed in the U.S. is imported, with much higher percentages in certain groups such as fresh produce and seafood. The FDA is fighting against foodborne illnesses by increasing the number of inspections under the Foreign Supplier Verification Program.

USDA taking a similar route

Brashears told the IAFP members that her mission as the top food safety at the USDA is pretty straightforward. 

“My primary objective is to control pathogens,” Brashears said. 

Coming from an academic and research background at Texas Tech University, Brashears is relying on science in her new job. She said changes in the poultry and swine inspection processes are examples of what can be gleaned from 20 years of research.

The tighter standards for the chicken industry under the modernization of inspection programs are making a difference, Brashears said. Part of that success is because of the increased inspection activities that came with the new program. Brashears said pathogen control should improve even more with new standards for the control of campylobacter that are coming into play this year.

Expanded attention to non-O157: H7 STECs in beef is also coming up this year, building on the years of science and research since the meat industry began using the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point approach to pathogen control.

In the world of pork, the modernization of inspections and controls in the swine industry are also on deck at USDA. The agency received 83,000 comments on the proposed rules for swine plants.

“All of them were read and considered,” Brashears said. “All of them. We expect to have the final rule by this summer.”

In discussing the new swine program, Brashears said she wanted to set the record straight on a key point. There is a misconception that the new rules would result in fewer inspections. Not so, Brashears said. One hundred percent of carcasses will be inspected.

Pre- and post-slaughter inspections will continue under the new swine program. Off-line as well as on-line inspections will continue, but there will be a new focus. Brashears said the biggest impact on public health comes at the point of off-line inspections, so there will be more of them.

As did Yiannas, Brashears said no matter what government and industry do, there will still be some threat of foodborne illnesses because of end-users, aka consumers. She cited research that showed 98 percent to 99 percent of people are not properly washing their hands when preparing food. That has to improve, she said, and the USDA is working on consumer education programs to reach higher levels of understanding.

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