USDA’s Mindy Brashears submitted this column to Food Safety News this week.
In the world of food safety, 1993 was a watershed moment. Early that year, hundreds of people became ill and four children died from an E. coli outbreak linked to fast food burgers. At the time, I was studying food safety at Oklahoma State University. Their deaths shocked me in a transformative way. I was pregnant with my first child and the outbreak ingrained in me a passion for ensuring the safety of our children’s food. And it made me realize that government and industry need to take a scientific approach in protecting the food supply.
In my role at USDA, I oversee the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and its team of scientists, veterinarians, inspection personnel, and policy experts. These dedicated career civil servants have been working to modernize meat and poultry slaughter inspection and bring it into the 21st century. In fact, FSIS just announced its final rule called the Modernization of Swine Slaughter Inspection. This rule has been in the works for four presidential administrations. It has key provisions based on science to improve food safety that are getting overlooked by those that oppose modernization efforts.
The final rule has new requirements that all swine slaughter establishments must conduct additional microbial testing to ensure that they are controlling for pathogens throughout the slaughter system. Who can argue with that? Who doesn’t want slaughterhouses to conduct more testing with the resulting data helping to drive food safety?
Additionally, there is another part to the final rule that establishments can decide whether they wish to participate in – a new slaughter inspection process for market hogs. If establishments do not wish to participate in the new process, they will continue to operate under the traditional slaughter inspection system. This new system is based on a pilot program that FSIS initiated in 1997 in market hog slaughter establishments to determine whether new slaughter inspection procedures, along with new plant responsibilities, could improve food safety. After 20 years, FSIS determined, based on scientific data, that the five swine slaughter establishments that participated in the pilot performed as well as those under traditional slaughter inspection. This wasn’t a surprise because FSIS successfully modernized the poultry inspection system in 2014 during the Obama administration.
The modernization of swine slaughter inspection ensures a safe product on your dinner table because every hog and carcass are inspected by USDA inspection personnel, as mandated by Congress. The valued USDA mark of inspection is applied by federal inspectors only on meat that is safe to eat.
FSIS’ mission is to ensure that meat, poultry and egg product are safe. I take that mission seriously and modernizing outdated regulations is a critical step to protecting the food supply as science and technology continue to advance. This rule is a science and data-based approach to modernization that will improve our food safety mission. I’ve spent my career bringing evidence-based methods to food production and I will continue to do so to keep my family and yours safe from foodborne illness.
About the author: Mindy M. Brashears is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s deputy under secretary for food safety. She previously was a professor of food safety and public health and the director of the International Center for Food Industry Excellence at Texas Tech. She earned her doctorate in food science from Oklahoma State University.
(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)