The new presidential Administration just finished its first 100 days in office, pushing through new ideas and new strategies in myriad areas of government. However, not everything has changed — the government’s focus on food safety remains among the top concerns. With so much emphasis on food safety nowadays,The National Provisionerapproached Alfred V. Almanza, Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) Administrator, to get his take on the meat and poultry industries’ accomplishments and issues in this arena. What follows is a sneak peek into what the industry and consumers can expect from FSIS in the future and how they can work best together to reach ever-higher food safety plateaus.

The National Provisioner: On a scale of 1-10, where would you say the meat- and poultry-processing industries are in terms of food safety? What can help the industry boost that number?

Almanza: Like I said before, the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry during a April 23, 2009, hearing on federal food-safety systems, I can only speak from the Food Safety and Inspection Service perspective, but I would give the food-safety system an A-plus. There’s always more work to be done, but FSIS works closely and constantly with the industry and other public-health partners to make sure that A-plus doesn’t fall to an A. From where I sit, FSIS is a strong food-safety agency for a very simple reason — we inspect. It’s in our name. It’s what the public demands and the law requires. And it’s been working well for more than a century.

NP: What do you believe to be the biggest threat to food safety in the meat and poultry industries? What are the key targets/strategies of FSIS to address this situation?

Almanza: Let’s start by looking at the mission of FSIS. Our mission is to protect the public health. Since our long-standing statutes were established, our inspection process has evolved into a preventative system designed to address problems before they occur. However, there is always room for improvement. One of the key things for FSIS going forward is, we believe we must measure and attack risk, hazards or inadequate performance to know where we can best focus our attention and efforts. In order to efficiently and effectively protect public health, we recognize that all food doesn’t necessarily carry the same risk and all plants do not operate the same way.

The different food-safety agencies, consumer representatives and industry representatives need to look at the various levels of risk posed by different food products and the different performance of the establishments that manufacture those food products. The conversation should include a discussion about what level of inspection is appropriate for different kinds of foods, what roles are appropriate for the different agencies involved in food safety, and how we approach uniformity in import safety.

In addition to working with our food-safety partners and industry, FSIS also relies heavily on data to carry out its mission. In that vein, FSIS has been working on a number of actions related to data integration and analysis, and enhancements to the agency’s inspection program, and many are nearing completion. The most significant initiative is the development of a Public Health Information System (PHIS), which will integrate the agency’s data systems to provide a comprehensive, fully automated system that will allow FSIS to more quickly and accurately identify trends, including vulnerabilities in food-safety systems, and thus allow us to more efficiently and effectively protect public health. This system will allow us to be proactive, not reactive, when it comes to food safety.

NP: Has there been, or will there be, any significant changes in our nation’s food-safety/security policies or strategies enacted by the new Administration? How much of an effect on FSIS has the new Administration had? Furthermore, how have they affected or will they affect processors?

Almanza: President Obama is committed to looking at the entire food supply, across products and across jurisdictions. To accomplish this goal, President Obama has established a Food Safety Working Group to conduct a thorough review of food-safety systems. The working group is comprised of government public-health and food-safety officials who are dedicated to evaluating the current food-safety system and providing recommendations for the future to President Obama.

In recent years, and in light of large-scale recalls, there has been a lot of interest in food safety from Congress, our stakeholders and the public. We fully support the President’s pledge to strengthen and enhance our nation’s food-safety system. Based on my more than 30 years serving with FSIS in the field and more recently at headquarters, I believe we are up for the challenge.

NP: Do you see biologically based pathogens as a greater threat to food safety/security than, say, “introduced” contaminants (i.e., foreign objects, improperly added contaminants/allergens, processing agents, etc.)? Please explain.

Almanza: The FSIS mission is to ensure that all food we inspect is safe and wholesome. Since our mission is to protect public health, we take any threat seriously.

Certainly pathogens can cause illnesses, but foreign objects can cause injury, and contaminants or allergens can cause adverse health effects. All of these reasons are serious reasons for a recall, but I can assure you that FSIS inspectors and public-health veterinarians are present in establishments to ensure that meat and poultry products are safe for consumption.

I should make the point that recalls are the last weapon that FSIS uses to combat foodborne illness and protect public health. The purpose of a recall is to remove meat or poultry from commerce as quickly as possible when FSIS has reason to believe it is adulterated or misbranded. Just as we approach preventing a recall in a proactive way, FSIS is also proactive in overseeing recalls once they become necessary.

The agency issues recall information as quickly as possible to the public, stakeholders and public-health partners. Also, we now translate many of the recall releases into Spanish. Last year, in order to improve the effectiveness of a recall, FSIS also began to make available to the public a list of retail establishments that have likely received products subject to the recall. FSIS believes this information helps consumers lower their risk of foodborne illness by providing more information that may assist them in identifying recalled products. Interested individuals can also subscribe on the FSIS Web site to get e-mail alerts about the retail distribution lists and recalls.

The industry also does its part to ensure a product’s safety. Slaughter and processing establishments develop a food-safety plan, which addresses issues including pathogens, contaminants and allergens. It is each plant’s responsibility to ensure that these food-safety plans are followed to reduce the risk of contamination that could negatively impact the safety of any meat or poultry product.

NP: How does FSIS work with the ever-evolving technologies that are developed to serve the industry? Do you consider any of these advances to be groundbreaking or simply another (good) step in the process toward creating a much more safe food supply?

Almanza: Technology is important to us because our policies at FSIS are rooted in science and based on data. Through science-based initiatives and efforts to continue to strengthen our infrastructure, FSIS works to prevent adulterated food from reaching the consumer. In 2008, FSIS personnel tested about 21,300 ready-to-eat product and environmental samples using risk-based criteria for Listeria and approximately 49,000 raw product samples for E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef and Salmonella in raw meat and poultry. To analyze these samples, FSIS has three labs, and supports 25 Food Emergency Response Network (FERN) labs. FERN consists of federal, state, and local governmental laboratories, which are responsible for protecting the U.S. food supply from intentional biological, chemical, and radiological contamination.

I’d also like to talk about how FSIS has engaged industry members — for example, on E. coli O157:H7 and non-STEC E. coli. Over the past year, we’ve held several meetings with key industry representatives and other stakeholders to discuss the control of E. coli O157:H7. We also meet with industry to discuss the public-health concerns about non-STEC E. coli. These meetings are crucial in helping industry face pathogen problems head-on and in helping to reduce the risk of foodborne illness. I have told several industry groups lately to expect advancements and expect them soon. We’ve also begun using more sensitive testing broths, and testing new components for E. coli O157:H7. We couldn’t have done this without the industry’s support and commitment to food safety. As pathogens evolve, so must the industry and FSIS.

FSIS also created a new office dedicated to serving small and very small plants. The Office of Outreach, Employee Education and Training (OOEET) was created by the industry to assist the industry. FSIS listened to industry feedback, and created OOEET to specifically aid in outreach to small and very small plants. Over the past year, FSIS has also unveiled a series of podcasts for industry members. These podcasts, which range in topic from “Developing a HACCP Plan” to “Food Defense,” are meant to supplement outreach that FSIS conducts for plant owners and managers throughout the year.

NP: Along those lines, what technology excites you in terms of the short-term future of food safety?

Almanza: First off, I’d like to mention the Public Health Information System, or PHIS. PHIS is a project that FSIS is excited about. It’s an information and monitoring system that is being designed to alert inspectors to dangerous food-processing trends; more rapidly detect and respond to everything from pathogen outbreaks and unsafe practices to widespread violations; better coordinate with managers, stakeholders and other agencies while improving investigations and adulterant tracing; and allow FSIS to enter, coordinate and store information in centralized data warehouse. The information collected will be constantly monitored, compared and assessed for unsafe patterns and anomalies that could spell trouble. PHIS will allow FSIS to be proactive about food safety.

In order to be proactive, we must also look at new trends and address them head on. For example, over the past year FSIS has conducted several surveys of industry practices. Through these surveys FSIS found documented evidence that many processing establishments were grinding primals and subprimals, which were not intended to be ground — and therefore not tested for E. coli O157:H7. Through these surveys and the subsequent meetings with industry members, we were able to produce new guidance for industry on E. coli O157:H7. We will continue to use data and surveys, like this one, to identify emerging trends and challenges and address them before they impact food safety.

NP: Finally, with everything protein processors have to worry about from a regulatory standpoint nowadays (safety, security, financials, employee issues such as immigration, etc.), what is your key piece of advice or reassurance for processors, in terms of the areas FSIS covers?

Almanza: Do your part and be proactive. The meat and poultry industry is made up of America’s individuals — they produce our meat and poultry. For the most part, the industry is receptive to the advancements that FSIS has continued to make in order to protect public health. FSIS makes an effort to keep the industry in the loop — through meetings and demonstrations, and even recently through podcasts targeted toward industry representatives on our FSIS Web site. But the industry must work hard too, and we must work together. Unfortunately, pathogens like E. coli O157:H7 are agile bugs — they’ll continue to grow, evolve and change, and in order to keep up with them, we must grow and evolve faster.