The new USDA Under Secretary in charge of food safety talks about the meat and poultry industries, BSE, and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina exclusively with The NATIONAL PROVISIONER.
On July 1, USDA Secretary Mike Johanns appointed Dr. Richard Raymond as Under Secretary of Agriculture for Food Safety. He is responsible for overseeing the policies and programs of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Dr. Raymond had served as Nebraska’s chief medical officer under then-Governor Johanns, and he directed a large number of public health programs, including disease prevention and health promotion.
On August 30, days after Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana and Mississippi, Dr. Raymond agreed to be interviewed by The NATIONAL PROVISIONER about his position. Here’s what he had to say on a variety of important topics:
What are your goals for this administration?
RR: The primary goal now is to continue the excellent work that has begun in this agency in the last four to six years — the introduction of the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) system in the mid-nineties in conjunction with the industry and its hard work to develop these HACCP plans in their plants. The work by our inspectors that are in those 6,000 federally-inspected facilities on a daily basis has produced dramatic results in the amount of food-borne illnesses, as confirmed by the Centers of Disease Control.
In the time period that I talked about, rates of E. coli O157 have gone down 42 percent in humans, listeria has gone down 40 percent, and campylabactor has gone down 31 percent. Those are just amazing numbers. With that said, the salmonella reduction was only 8 percent, and most of that was in one specific serial type. Others have actually increased. One of the main goals will be taking a very long and hard look at salmonella rates, and see what we can do to eliminate or greatly reduce that risk to our food supply.
Another goal is to make sure the food supply is safe from intentional acts of contamination. The prevention aspect is important. I see every dollar we spend here for food safety also relates to intentional attacks on the food supply. We just recently announced that Dr. Curt Mann was coming in to join us as deputy undersecretary. He’s been very involved in Homeland Security working through the White House for the last three years for agriculture, water, and food safety and security. He’s going to bring a whole new emphasis and a world of experience to our team.
The third goal, and maybe the most important, is increased communications, both in this agency and also in other agencies in the USDA, other federal partners like the FDA and the CDC, and parties outside of the federal government — not just producers and consumers, but also state and local public health officials. Coming from that environment, I know the state health officials are thirsty for more information on food safety. We’ve already instituted several measures to make them a stronger partner of ours, so we can have a more robust, efficient, and rapid response to food-borne illnesses.
What is the state of food safety in the meat and poultry industries? What is the industry doing well, and what can be improved?
RR: I know that our food supply in America is the safest in the world, and it is by far safer than it’s ever been. That is because of the partnership with the USDA, FSIS, and the industry. In my opinion, the safety that’s produced in the poultry, meat, and egg products plants in America just enhances our reputation for quality in the international marketplace.
The numbers are good, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t or won’t do better. Just this past week, we had a two-day meeting in Athens, GA, to talk about pre-slaughter salmonella loads in poultry. A large number of attendees were from the industry to listen to scientists and researchers talk about findings and theoretical things that might be changed. I count on the industry to help us make certain that as we do policy changes, that they are founded in science and do have a result that we can expect to see. It’s just not something we can have dreamt up. I was very impressed by the spirit of cooperation that was in that meeting, and their desire also to improve the product.
It was recently announced there were 1,036 violations noted by inspectors about specified risk materials (SRMs) over a 17-month period. What were the causes of these violations?
RR: Some things to keep in mind are that they’re less than one-half of 1 percent of all the NRs issued by our inspectors that are in the plants. During that same time period, there were 8.8 million inspection procedures done, and there were over 60 million cattle processed. When you think about that volume and put that 1,036 in perspective, that’s really not at all alarming to me.
When that cow went down in the state of Washington [with BSE], the FSIS did interim final rules surrounding SRMs and other areas. They were put out with very little input or discussion. They became effective immediately the day they were published in the Federal Register, which is not the way that it is usually done. It was felt to be that much of an emergency. The industry had to respond immediately, and our inspectors had to respond immediately to what they were looking for, and that takes a little time to get things perfect. It should not be alarming; it should not be surprising that there were a lot of NRs written during this process.
Part of it was learning the system. The majority of NRs had more to do with paperwork and process and HACCP guidelines, and it takes a while to re-write those. A lot of the NRs were asking plants to make amendments to their HACCP plans and procedures. It’s also important to note that because our inspectors were there and were noting areas of non-compliance, plants were immediately brought into compliance. It was extremely rare that we stopped production, and we can honestly say, because we have hand-read all 1,036 non-compliance reports, that no SRM products entered the American food supply. So the system worked.
One of the reasons it worked was because of the industry, which had to make a major mind-shift with these regulations. It’s to their credit that we didn’t have thousands more of these NRs, because they obviously had to change things immediately.
In the light of Hurricane Katrina and the flood damage in the Southeast, what role is the FSIS playing in the recovery efforts?
RR: We’re still trying to define our roles. But before the hurricane hit, we had public information messages out on the Web and to the media on how to prepare for probable power outages and how to keep your food safe. Subsequently, the releases have gone back out, with the emphasis on how to tell if your food is safe to eat or not.
This morning, we’ve been exploring if we need to get the word out to the National Guard, law enforcement and rescue personnel that have contact with people who don’t have electricity, who don’t have the ability to get to our Web site. We’ve been having some discussions about distributing leaflets and pamphlets that can be handed out in any line where they’re accessing food.
We also have a lot of plants that have been closed because of power outages and flooding. As they come back online, we need to make sure those plants are back to a safe level of operations. They won’t be able to operate until the inspectors are on the line, so there’s a tremendous effort to make sure our personnel are where they need to be. Some plants won’t be opening for a long time, and some of the people who might be inspecting those lines will be moved to other areas of the country so they can help other plants come online.
We do know that after natural disasters like this, there is an increased risk in the food supply. Animals that are stressed sometimes get diseases more readily than animals that are not. Our inspection and our HACCP plans must be adhered to very strictly. Our inspectors must perform due diligence, and our testing may even have to be increased, because there will be that risk from stressed animals. There’s the issue within the poultry industry that if broilers aren’t harvested at a proper time in their life cycle, they become too large to be handled by the equipment in an efficient and safe manner, so we’ve got those issues to look at. NP