Ag undersecretary: 'Our jurisdiction begins at the point
By JERRY HAGSTROM
For the Capital Press
ATLANTA -- The nation's two top food-safety experts told the American Farm Bureau Federation this week that food producers at all levels have to help improve the safety of American food, but reassured farmers and ranchers that they are not planning to come onto their property to conduct frequent inspections.
"Our jurisdiction begins at the point of slaughter," Agriculture Undersecretary for Food Safety Elisabeth Hagen said at a presentation here Jan. 9. "We are not looking to expand our jurisdiction. We're looking for ideas. We're looking for people to come together." She is in charge of food safety for meat, poultry and processed egg products.
But referring to the development of a new rule to improve the hazard analysis and critical control points system for meat food safety known as HAACP, Hagen also said that the condition of carcasses at the point of slaughter also has an impact on food safety and that "pre-harvest" food-safety concerns "have to be a part of the discussion."
The Agriculture Department will promote on-farm practices that improve meat food safety, Hagen said.
Hagen said the new HAACP rule should be released in a few months and will reflect comments the agency has received on an initial proposal.
"We know we probably didn't get it quite right the first time," Hagen said. "Our objective is not to make regulations more burdensome. It is to make them clear."
U.S. Food and Drug Administration Deputy Commissioner for Foods Mike Taylor, who is in charge of safety for most other foods, said his agency will use the authority Congress gave it in the food-safety modernization act passed in December to set standards for the safe growing and processing of food, and to require producers and processors to put food-safety plans in place.
FDA's regulations will also address the safe transportation of food and its handling in the retail sector, Taylor said.
FDA will work with states and localities to improve oversight of retail operations and "will hold importers accountable" for making sure that food overseas is produced under the same standards as in the United States, he said.
When a Farm Bureau member from North Carolina expressed concern that the new regulations and inspection would give foreign producers a competitive advantage, Taylor said that to the contrary, "There is going to be a real shift of inspection of foreign products."
FDA's mandate to prevent foodborne illness "is a big deal shift from the current state of play," Taylor said.
But Taylor also said that FDA, which has often been criticized for not inspecting food operations more frequently than every 10 years, said that contrary to rumor the agency would not start frequent on-farm inspections. He said the agency "could not begin to inspect" all operations frequently with its small staff.
Taylor said that rising consumer expectations and the emergence of a global food supply produced in many countries had led to an "historic moment" of consensus about how to improve food safety.
Hagen also noted that USDA is responsible for enforcing the law requiring humane handling of livestock.
The agency is conducting a training program for inspectors to teach them about humane handling, she said, and has put an ombudsman in place to handle complaints.
The agency also has asked the USDA Inspector General to conduct an audit of its humane handling regulations and analyze how the agency has been responding to appeals of its decisions, she added.