USDA Under Secretary Dr. Elsa Murano talks to MeatNews about recalls, HACCP, and the future direction of food safety.
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MeatNews:Recently USDA office of the inspector general came out with two reports critical of USDAs handling of the 2002 Listeria in ready-to-eat poultry and the bovine spongiform surveillance plan. What is your response
Murano: During a recall, the job of compliance officers is to conduct effectiveness checks to be sure the consignees are informed and the product is retrieved and a records are kept so that all of the product is accounted for and all of the appropriate people are notified down the retail level.
The inspector general had some ideas on how this could be done better. One was to make sure the documentation was detailed enough so that if the inspector general conducted an audit, it will be easy for them to see how well we conducted our effectiveness check.
In my opinion, the 2002 recall involved something that never happened before ?FSIS collaborated very closely with CDC in an epidemiological investigation where CDC concentrated on the victims and we concentrated on what plants and products were involved. This was unprecedented and we worked together to successfully identify the plants. As I recall, there were a lot of different products that could have been involved but weren. If CDC jumped the gun products that weren contaminated could have been recalled and the outbreak would not have been stopped.
Effectiveness checks could have been done more efficiently at that time (2002). We identified this through our (FSIS) Program Evaluation, Enforcement, and Review office. We improved how we carried out those checks that we had all of the right information and completed it in as timely a manner as possible. In our Fulfilling the Visions publication, we listed the improvements we have made in our effectiveness check procedures that we do during a recall. We identified the areas where we needed to improve and we made those improvements.
When we conducted the Class Two recall last December to recover the meat from the BSE-infected cow, the effectiveness checks were much more efficient than those in the 2002 recall.
Similarly, the inspector general office identified areas in the BSE surveillance program that needed to be improved. The inspector general had several recommendations and identified certain areas that needed improvement.
The OIG reports are useful in identifying areas that need improving. Where we take some exception is when the OIG makes recommendations on how to fix the problems it finds. These people (OIG staff members) are auditors and not scientists or statisticians or experts in disease or microbiology. What USDA tries to do is identify what we think will fix the deficiencies identified in the OIG report.
We sometimes differ with the OIG auditors want to do. In my experience as Under Secretary for Food Safety, when we put into place solutions to food safety problems that a lot of times differed from what OIG wanted to do the result has been decreases in the incidence of food-borne illnesses that weve seen today, especially reduction in E. coli O157:H7 illnesses -- a 36 percent reduction in one year. We have cut the number of recalls in half and broke the cycle of multi-million-pound recalls. We have had one every year between 1997 and 2003. Last year, 2003 was the first year that we didnt have a multi-million-pound recall. This is very significant. We identified problems and found solutions that actually worked.
MN: To what specifically do you attribute the reductions inE. coli, Listeria, and Salmonella contamination?
Murano: We know the majority of illnesses caused by E. coliO157:H7 is due to undercooked ground beef. Therefore, I attribute the reduction in illnesses caused by E. coliO157:H7 to three things.
First and foremost is the reassessment of the HACCP plans in facilities that make ground beef to determine if E. coliO157:H7 in their operation was a hazard reasonably likely to occur. In years past, conventional wisdom was that E. coliO157:H7 was rare in a beef plant. But, recently it has become more prevalent. When the plants did their reassessments, they found that E. coliO157:H7 was a hazard reasonably likely to occur and they changed their HACCP plan accordingly. Second, for the first time, FSIS was able to conduct audits of the HACCP reassessments with the correct team of experts people who were specifically trained in the science of HACCP. The audits helped the industry with an assessment that would be a second pair of eyes with the scientific knowledge to say Lets look at this again.This never happened before because of the lack of knowledge about HACCP.
Third, we have placed emphasis on training our inspectors. We started a very extensive training of our inspectors in food safety regulatory essentials. This will give us consistently trained inspectors and consistent enforcement action. Our supervisors are also better trained on supervision.
For Listeria, the final rule that we published was based on a risk assessment of the risk of Listeria in processing plant that made ready-to-eat products. It was a long time in the making. This was during the Pilgrims Pride recall and we were under pressure to do something.?We resisted until the risk assessment was completed which showed us the most effective way to reduce -- if not eliminate -- Listeria in a plant was not by testing the environment but by applying post-processing treatments or by having a Listeria-inhibiting substance in the formulation.
It changed the behavior of a lot of plants. We just completed a survey that shows a lot of companies have changed their operations which has contributed to a reduction in Listeria contamination.
For Salmonella, we had a performance standard where if a plant tested positive three times, there were consequences. This goes against HACCP. Testing should only be used for verification. Now, if we have one positive sample, we conduct an in-depth investigation to determine where the control was lost.
The big picture is the injection of scientific principles, risk assessment, sound training, and fixing HACCP have contributed to the declines in food-borne illnesses.
MN: Do you see further decreases in food-borne illnesses?
Murano: We havent reached the bottom yet. Our Visions of the Future document talks about some of the initiatives we have in mind. One is the hazard coefficient concept. It looks at universe of meat and poultry processing plants in the United States and be able to categorize those plants according to the products they make and according to how well they comply with food safety requirements. The plants that produce the riskiest products but arent doing a good job in terms of food safety are the plants that FSIS will concentrate on.
Also, the industry will be able to look at it and say: We as an industry can target our programs to help get those plants out of that quadrant and into the quadrant with high food safety compliance.
MN: You've stated that HACCP must be science- based and flexible. Explain.
Murano: Science-based in the sense of it being based on risk and knowing the risk through risk assessment. What is the risk in a food or in a given situation HACCP has seven principles. Perhaps, there needs to be an eighth validation of the processes in place at the critical control points. Some companies dont validate the processes that they use in their plants. They take a process someone else is using and put it into place in their plant. They need to validate that that process works in their plant with their product.
This is where flexibility comes in. We need to look back and say maybe there is something that need to be tweaked or added or teased out. Science evolves in terms of the information we receive. There may be a new bacteria or a bacteria develops a way to survive a treatment. This is also flexibility. You need to keep up with the science of food safety and not be so rigid that you think you have done your HACCP plan and dont need to revisit it again.
MN: How are you involving the meat industry in consumer education of food safety?
Murano: Food safety education is very important. The consumer or food preparer is the final link in the food safety chain. The meat industry has a role to play. The processors can support organizations such as the Partnership for Food Safety Education with their time and ideas so those who have more direct contact with consumers, such as retailers, can deliver the food safety message more effectively. Also, the packaging of products disseminates the food safety message.
We have launched an aggressive food safety campaign. It is an up-hill battle because consumers are exposed to so much information everyday and sometimes they dont realize what is important. We have done events in key cities with celebrities, such as Wynonna Judd. We try to catch the medias attention.
The Food Safety Mobile has worked well. It gives us a person-to-person contact. People see it and say Here is the federal government coming to bring a message to me. I better pay attention.But, we only have one vehicle and it's a big country. I wish we had a fleet of them. We have done surveys that show the Food Safety Mobile really gets the message across.
have started a pilot program where we educate community leaders PTA, soccer moms
--creating a multiplier effect in educating other members of the community. We
call them the Boom-Burgs baby-boomers that live in the suburbs.
Strategic, stealthy invasion
bacteria aren't just dangerous to your health -- they're sneaky, too.
Microbiologist Jorge Galan and his colleagues at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn., have determined how salmonella pull off this remarkable survival feat.
The bacteria, they reported last month in Science, have a small, syringe-like device on the outside of their cells called a Type III secretion system.
The "mini-syringe" is used by salmonella to inject special proteins into the outside layer of intestine cells, Galan said. The proteins trick the cells of the digestive tract into swallowing the salmonella bacteria and stashing them away in special compartments.
"Salmonella is an extremely sophisticated creature," Galan said. "These bacteria don't enter your intestinal cells by brute force. They do it in a careful manner using this absolutely wonderful syringe."
Once salmonella have bamboozled their way inside the intestine, they wield their tiny syringes again. This time, the bacteria inject proteins into the outside membrane of the compartments where they are being stored, Galan said. This prevents the compartments from being recognized by the body's defense mechanisms; therefore, the salmonella have a safe place to live and grow -- and possibly cause food poisoning or even typhoid fever. Galan's discovery of the role of the Type III secretion system in salmonella infection could lead to new therapeutic strategies for treating bacterial illness.
companies are looking for drugs that will inhibit the 'syringe,' which could cripple
the bacteria and eventually make it harmless," Galan said. He
acknowledged that most people don't know they have ingested salmonella until they
become ill. By then, disabling the bacterial "syringe" won't stop food
poisoning or other illness from setting in, but it could help infected people
to get better more quickly.
USDA regulatory policy has been¡°hijacked¡± by agribusiness industry
BAX¢ç Receives Worldwide Approval for the Detection of Food-Borne Pathogens
The DuPont Qualicon BAX¢ç system (available from Oxoid Limited) has met with approval all over the world for the detection of food-borne pathogens in a variety of foods. Receiving acknowledgment and certification from some of the world's toughest regulatory bodies, the BAX* system is being increasingly recognised as a valuable tool for quality assurance in the food and associated industries.
The globally recognised AOAC International has certified the BAX¢ç system as an Official Method for the detection of Salmonella (2003.09) and Listeria monocytogenes (2003.12). In addition, the AOAC Research Institute has awarded Performance Tested Method status to the BAX¢ç system for the detection of Salmonella (100201), Listeria monocytogenes (070202) and E. coli O157:H7 (010401).
Health Canada has approved the BAX¢ç system in Canada as an analytical method for detecting Salmonella (MFLP-29), Listeria monocytogenes (MFLP-28) E. coli O157:H7 (MFLP-30) and Enterobacter sakazakii (MFLP-27).
The BAX¢ç system has also received AFNOR certification in France for the detection of Salmonella (QUA 18/3 - 11/02) and, in Scandinavia, has been validated and certified as an alternative microbiological method by NordVal for the detection of Salmonella in all foods and animal feed (NV-doc.1-2004-01-01). Furthermore, the BAX¢ç system has been approved for sale by the Ministry of Agriculture in Brazil for the detection of Salmonella, Listeria and L. monocytogenes in all food, environmental and carcass samples, and for the detection of E. coli O157 in beef, poultry and pork.
BAX¢ç system is a genetics-based, automated testing platform for the rapid detection
of food-borne pathogens. BAX¢ç system assays are available for Salmonella, Listeria
spp, Listeria monocytogenes, E. coli O157:H7 and Enterobacter sakazakii.
Salmonella Cases Spread to Five States
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No tests have pinpointed the cause, but food histories of those who ate at Sheetz convenience stores and got sick -- and those who ate there and didn't get sick -- indicate that the tomatoes were the likely source, said Richard McGarvey, a spokesman for the state Health Department.
The Food and Drug Administration said Friday that 289 people from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia have been sickened since July 2.
Hundreds of samples of tomatoes and lettuce from Sheetz have been tested. Only tests on an unopened bag of tomatoes were positive for salmonella, but not the strain responsible for the recent outbreak.
On Friday, state officials said they were testing additional food samples, but McGarvey cautioned that it would not be not unusual if the direct cause were not found. "What oftentimes happens is that what's been contaminated is used up," McGarvey said.
Those who got sick ingested a strain of salmonella usually found on produce, and all those sickened in Pennsylvania bought sandwiches from one of at least 16 Sheetz stores, company officials have said.
"The results announced today reinforce that it is safe to eat at Sheetz," said Steve Sheetz, chairman of the Altoona, Pa.-based company, in a statement Friday night. He added that the company removed the tomatoes before being asked to do so by the health department.
The supplier of the Roma tomatoes, Wheeling, W.Va.-based Coronet Foods, has said that tests turned up no contamination at its processing plant, but suspended purchasing and processing of the tomatoes.
FDA Investigates Certain ROMA Tomatoes as Source of Foodborne Illness Outbreaks in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Mid-Atlantic States
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), working closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and several state health and agricultural agencies, is focusing on certain pre-sliced tomatoes as the likely source of Salmonellosis in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia.
Since July 2, 2004, 289 cases of Salmonella have been reported in these states. Many appear to be related to pre-sliced Roma tomatoes purchased at deli counters in Sheetz Gas Stations between July 2nd through July 9th based on epidemiological investigation of the Salmonella cases.
Salmonella is an organism which causes serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems. Healthy persons infected with Salmonella often experience fever, diarrhea (which may be bloody), nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. In rare circumstances, infection with Salmonella can result in the organism getting into the bloodstream and producing more severe illnesses such as arterial infections (i.e. infected aneurysms), endocarditis, and arthritis.
FDA continues its close collaboration with the CDC, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, the Pennsylvania Department of Health, and other authorities to identify the source of the current outbreak of Salmonella and help prevent any further spread of these outbreaks.
who believe they may have experienced the same symptoms of illness after consuming
sandwiches from this company are urged to contact their local health department.
Food Safety Informaiton
Bacteria's worst nightmare
a brave new world where self-cleaning countertops keep themselves free of salmonella,
E. coli and other nasty bugs.
Such a world would be a germophobe's dream and a bacterium's worst nightmare -- and scientists at PPG Industries Inc. and Penn State University are working to make it a reality.
Researchers at Pittsburgh-based PPG's Coatings Laboratory in Hampton are working with Penn State environmental engineer Bruce Logan to design a surface treatment for counter tops that has the power both to repel bacteria and to kill them on contact.
In a country fixated on hygiene, where even toothbrushes and toys are stamped with an antibacterial label, germ-killing counter tops would have tremendous commercial potential, PPG senior scientist David Diehl said.
More important, this technology could help to stave off disease caused by food-borne contaminants such as this month's salmonellosis outbreak linked to Roma tomatoes at Sheetz convenience stores.
Salmonellosis causes diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever. It lasts up to 10 days, but is rarely fatal.
Nationwide, 76 million people suffer from food-borne illness such as this each year, accounting for 325,000 hospitalizations and more than 5,000 deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Diehl said it's impossible to speculate whether antibacterial counter tops would have prevented the Sheetz outbreak, which so far has sickened 249 people in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio, and possibly 38 more people in Maryland and Virginia.
It's clear, though, that unsanitary food preparation areas represent a serious health problem that could be solved, at least in part, by using antimicrobial coatings, Diehl said.
"If you have a food preparation area, and you think you've cleaned it, the truth of the matter is if you go back in and take swabs, the bacteria are still there," Diehl said. "We're trying to address this as best we can with our coatings technology."
Here's how it would work. First, the food preparation surface would be treated with an antimicrobial coating thinner than 1/80,000th of the diameter of a human hair.
Once applied to the surface, the coating's attack on bacteria would be two-fold: The coating would combine with ultraviolet rays from a fluorescent bulb to produce electronically charged particles that destroy any bacterial cells they contact, Logan said.
Also, the photoactivated coating would be chemically unfriendly to the bacteria so they are less likely to stick to the surface in the first place, Logan said.
Diehl wouldn't speculate about when the antimicrobial counters might be available to buy or discuss specifics about the coating chemistry because he said PPG hasn't received a patent yet.
U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart, R-Bradford Woods, is working to secure a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help PPG and Penn State accelerate the development of this technology and bring it to market as quickly as possible.
"It's something that is so new and so cutting edge that it deems us looking at it, especially in light of the recent (salmonellosis outbreak)," Hart said.
Hart also is seeking an additional $400,000 from the USDA for expanded research to control and prevent food-borne bacterial disease.
Some of these dollars could be put toward research into antimicrobial coatings that are applied either directly to your food or to its packaging, rather than to the countertop.
For example, Catherine Cutter, a food safety expert in Penn State's Department of Food Science, is working on how to incorporate proteins with natural germ-destroying properties into the plastic packaging of ready-to-eat meat products such as hot dogs and bologna.
This could help to kill dangerous bacteria that can get stuck in the crevices of food packaging machinery and find their way back into meat after it is cooked and before it is wrapped, Cutter said. These antimicrobial proteins also could be used in the packaging of raw meat, Cutter said.
In addition, Cutter is testing new antimicrobial substances that could be added to the meat "batter" before it is cooked, and she is exploring whether bathing packaged meat in boiling water could kill bacteria.
"We've been demonstrating that these technologies work, and they are all things that processors could do to help control (bacteria)," Cutter said.
Yet, scientists agree the use of antibacterial coatings -- whether applied to food, plastic wrap or kitchen fixtures -- will still be just one of the many precautions food handlers must take to prevent food-borne contamination.
Even in a world with germ-killing counter tops, you will still have to wash your hands.