My passion for public health stems from my career as an infectious disease doctor, watching families cope with the heartbreak caused by preventable diseases, including foodborne illness. I know what it feels like to explain to a husband in shock that the reason his wife is on life support is because of something she ate that was contaminated with a deadly pathogen.
Now, I am the Under Secretary for Food Safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In my current role, I oversee dedicated USDA inspectors, scientists, veterinarians, and numerous other personnel who protect food that we eat every day. There is nothing more fundamental than being able to feed your own family a meal that will not make you sick, or worse, put you in the hospital.
I understand that there has been a lot of confusion about a proposal by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to modernize inspection at poultry slaughter plants.
I would like to try to eliminate that confusion.
First and most importantly, we put forward this modernization proposal because we have data demonstrating that the system it embodies will prevent foodborne illnesses – approximately 5,000 per year. It will prevent illnesses by making commonsense, scientifically verified changes in the way inspection personnel do their work in plants.
This is significant because for the past 10 years, the food safety community hasn’t been able to make any headway in the fight against two dangerous strains of bacteria that are commonly found in poultry products – Salmonella and Campylobacter. While poultry only accounts for a fraction of the illnesses attributable to Salmonella and Campylobacter, the numbers from these pathogens are still significant. Together, these two bacteria cause an approximate 344,000 poultry-associated foodborne illnesses every year. The most troubling aspect of these data is that, despite all our efforts, rates of illness caused by these two foodborne pathogens have been stagnant, even showing occasional rises, in recent years.
We need to find a way to reverse the trend, and if we are to do so, one thing is clear: we cannot continue regulating the poultry industry as we have. FSIS can’t keep focusing on food quality assurance tasks – work that our food safety inspectors are currently doing – and simply cross our fingers, hoping that checking for extra feathers and bruises in chickens will make a dent in the rates of illnesses caused by Salmonella and Campylobacter. We need all of our employees to be focused on a single purpose: to protect public health through food safety. Our inspectors shouldn’t be doing a company’s quality assurance work. They should be making sure that a company produces safe food.
Under our newly proposed inspection system, most inspectors who have performed quality control checks under our old system would perform food safety tasks that have been demonstrated to make your food safer, like making sure a company’s food safety plan is effective and conducting tests for the harmful pathogens which actually cause foodborne illness.
We started testing a new type of inspection system in a pilot program that began in 1999. In these plants, Salmonella and Campylobacter contamination rates actually decreased quite quickly. This refocused inspection works.
If we were to finalize our proposal and implement this new type of inspection system broadly, we would be enabling our employees to do more, and we as an Agency would be doing a better job, to fulfill our mission. We would still be in every poultry slaughter plant every day, inspecting every chicken that enters the food supply. We would just be doing it better.
I understand that in the course of this discussion, some have raised concerns for the workers in poultry plants. They ask – if this new inspection system causes changes in the way that plants operate – will it make poultry plants more dangerous for the people who work there?
Let me be clear: USDA would never put forward a rule that would put anyone in harm’s way. This is not a choice between food safety and worker safety. The data that we have to date does not show any link between this new type of inspection system and increased risk for poultry industry employees or our own inspection personnel. And as we evaluate next steps for this proposal, we are working with our federal partners to ensure that worker health isn’t harmed – and is in fact improved.
I don’t want to minimize the discussion about worker health. We do need to have a discussion on the health of workers in the industry. That discussion is underway. While we as a food safety agency do not have the ability or expertise to regulate worker safety, we have been working closely with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health on important efforts to strengthen the federal government’s data collection and enforcement activities in this space. These two federal agencies have the regulatory authority and expertise to improve worker safety.
As a result of these efforts – and the discussion started by this proposed rule – we as a federal government are talking about worker health in the poultry industry in a way that we never have before.
Most importantly, our data show that we can make progress in meeting our mission and ensuring a safer food supply. We have a major tool at our disposal to reduce foodborne illness, and this is but one of many ways that USDA is working hard to keep you safe from foodborne illness. If you had the opportunity to save a life, to spare a mother or father from the agony of having a child in the hospital, wouldn’t you jump at the chance?