Makes a Move on Food Safety

AMI's Hodges Tells Farm Foundation That U.S. Food Regulatory System is Working to Ensure Meat and Poultry Safety, Though Improvements Can Be Made

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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

(American Meat Institute)

The U.S. meat and poultry regulatory and inspection system is working to ensure safe food, though it can be improved further, according to AMI Executive Vice President Jim Hodges, who addressed the Farm Foundation today in Washington, D.C. 

“A common refrain heard in Washington and other venues is the U.S. food safety regulatory system is broken and that it has failed the American people.  There is some truth to that argument, but a closer look at our meat and poultry food safety systems may yield a different conclusion,” Hodges said. 

To see the slides that accompany Hodges remarks, including relevant charts, click here:

Hodges told the audience that foodborne illnesses associated with meat and poultry consumption have declined markedly and noted that roughly a billion meals are consumed safely each day in the United States.  

As context, he told the audience that human illness statistics published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that the pathogens most commonly associated with meat and poultry make up only a fraction of the total foodborne illnesses and deaths in the U.S. 

“I cite these illness statistics not to minimize each and every illness, hospitalization or death associated with food consumption, but to put the risk into context,” he said.  “Is the sky falling?  No.  Still, most rational individuals, including myself, believe food safety can be improved.” 

According to Hodges, USDA’s meat and poultry inspection system, run by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), is strong with 8,000 inspectors overseeing approximately 6,300 domestic meat and poultry operations.  Plants processing animals are inspected during all hours the plant is operating.  Plants preparing meat and poultry products are inspected at least daily.  An additional 2,000 federal employees provide supervision and support services at a total cost of more than $1 billion dollars. 

“On average, that equates to about a 1.5 full-time employee equivalent allocated to each plant at a cost of more than $150,000 per plant per year,” he said.  “The numbers are important in demonstrating that significant taxpayer resources are already devoted to meat and poultry inspection.”

All plants must have mandatory Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plans in place that are designed to prevent problems before they occur.  During the course of a year, FSIS will conduct more than 80,000 microbiological tests to verify that the plant’s production process is under control.  FSIS conducts these verification tests in addition to the several million microbiological tests the industry does each year.

Hodges also said that federal law requires that foreign countries exporting to the U.S. must have an inspection system equivalent to the U.S. system.  Thirty-three foreign counties are currently approved to ship products to the U.S.  Meat and poultry products arriving at U.S. borders are also routinely inspected and sampled for laboratory analysis. “We have a strong meat and poultry inspection system, but it’s important to recognize only the industry can produce safe food,” he said.  “While food processors and handlers can minimize risks through the use of good management practices, we cannot guarantee with absolute certainty that all food products are free from all risks. But progress is being made.”

Since 2000, the industry has reduced the prevalence of E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef by 45 percent to less than one-half percent.  Listeria monocytogenes on ready-to-eat products has been reduced by 74 percent to less than 0.4 percent.

Similar improvements have been documented in foodborne illness incidence reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since 2000, illnesses caused by E. coli O157:H7 are down by 40 percent and listeriosis is down by 10 percent.

A question often debated, he said,  is whether or not microbiological performance standards are needed to improve public health.  According to Hodges, since the performance standards were implemented in the late 1990s, Salmonella in chicken is down 58 percent, Salmonella in pork is down 68 percent and Salmonella in ground beef is down 64 percent.

“One could conclude that the Salmonella performance standards are having a positive effect.  But the incidence of food borne illness associated with Salmonella has actually increased over the same time period,” Hodges said.  “Are microbiological performance standards needed?  Yes, if properly constructed to meet a public health objective and they are scientifically based to measure if food is safe and non-injurious to public health.”

He argued that such standards are inappropriate if they are solely based on achieving an arbitrary outcome that yields no public health benefit. 

 In concluding his remarks, Hodges detailed the steps he believes can enhance food safety, including:

  • A focus on government inspection programs that are designed and implemented to protect public health.  “Inspection activities that do not have a direct impact on public health waste scarce resources and divert attention from issues of public health importance,” he said.
  • Continual improvement of preventive process control systems is needed.  Mandatory Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) and Standard Sanitary Operating Procedures (SSOP) that focuses on prevention versus detection is the key.  The stringency of the control system should be proportional to the public health risk.
  • Government agencies must be fully funded to assure the safety of domestically produced and imported food is maintained.  This is a critical need for FDA regulated products. 
  • Resource allocation should be based on the public health risk posed by a particular food and the control measures that are used during the manufacturing and distribution process to control such risk.
  • Objective and achievable food safety standards that are scientifically determined to measure whether the food is safe, not adulterated and non-injurious to public health are needed.  Food safety standards must be based on quantifiable, measurable standards that have a direct impact on public health.
  • During the standard setting process the U.S. must assure compatibility with internationally recognized standards such as Codex Alimentarius to protect the health of consumers, ensure fair trade practices and promote coordination of food standards development by the international community.
  • Efforts should be focused on conducting a more through analysis to identify how and why a foodborne disease outbreak occurred.  Each government agency involved in investigations of foodborne disease outbreaks or product recalls should be required to report the reasons such incidences occurred.  The reports should focus on how the food product was harvested, processed, distributed, prepared and consumed to provide detailed information that would assist food handlers in preventing future occurrences.
  • A rigorous government inspection and testing is needed to verify that consumer-ready products are safe.  Test results should be performed under accepted sampling and analytical protocols and meet objective food safety standards.  Testing to determine the adequacy of process control at interim points during harvesting, manufacturing and distribution should be conducted by the industry
  • Establishment of a public/private partnership to design and implement a comprehensive research program to improve food safety is needed.  The research program should be directed by a board of qualified food safety experts from government, academia and the industry and should focus on developing risk mitigation and intervention strategies to prevent foodborne disease outbreaks.

“In my opinion, the meat and poultry industry has met the challenge of continuously improving the safety of the products produced.  And, the U.S. has a very good meat and poultry inspection system to assure the safety of meat and poultry products,” he concluded.  “It’s a given fact that producing safe food is good for customers and good for business, but the job is not done.  Industry pledges its cooperation to work with all parties to ensure that the U.S. maintains the safest food supply in the world.”







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