Remarks prepared for delivery by Jerold Mande, deputy under secretary for food safety, at the joint FDA-FSIS public meeting on product tracing, December 9, 2009, Washington, DC.
Good morning and thank you for coming to this important public meeting that will help seek solutions to one of our most pressing challenges today in food safety: product tracing.
With the formation of the President's Food Safety Working Group in March, improving product tracing has become a priority for the Obama Administration.
Today's gathering is significant not only because this meeting is a vital forum for our stakeholders and the public, but also because it will advance a significant joint effort with one of our closest partners in food safety, the Food and Drug Administration, as we work together to strengthen our nation's food safety system.
We are glad to have with us today so many representatives from our private, non-profit, and public partners here helping us create a more effective traceback system.
The Food Safety Working Group's goal regarding product tracing and the charge for this forum is clear:
Outbreaks of foodborne illness should be prevented; however, when they do occur, they must be identified quickly and stopped.
The Food Safety Working Group recommends the development of a food tracing system that shortens the time from outbreak detection to resolution and recovery. In a successful food safety system, outbreaks are rare, limited in scale, and short in duration.
Tracing contamination to its source quickly and decisively saves lives because it helps us identify the products that are making people sick. If a traceback investigation succeeds in determining the source of contaminated product, we can also trace contaminated product forward throughout the distribution chain and send the appropriate warnings.
For these two days we'll be discussing our product tracing systems, identifying improvements, working together to spot gaps, and then finding solutions to increase the speed and accuracy of product tracing.
This problem, unfortunately, is difficult.
The CDC estimates that as many as 300,000 people in the U.S. are hospitalized each year from foodborne illnesses and millions become ill and don't even realize that it is connected to tainted food.
While this forum will begin with product tracing as a comprehensive task that will require cooperation and commitment from both business and government to get the job done, one area that you'll be hearing a lot about is gaps at the retail level.
Despite the dedicated efforts of food safety officials across the country, our capacity to trace tainted products is seriously limited. Poor record keeping and inadequate information about food sources, ingredients or distribution—particularly at the retail level—make tracing a cumbersome process and make recalls less effective.
With an effective tracing system, when an outbreak occurred—involving ground beef for example—the product that caused the outbreak would be quickly identified as would the retail stores where consumers purchased the product. The store would have the appropriate records that show which processing establishment produced the beef used in the ground product. And then, we could perform traceback and traceforward investigations.
By doing so, we could make consumers aware of what contaminated product to avoid or discard, and therefore control the outbreak. At the same time, our assessment of the establishment that produced the contaminated product could detect if there's a larger problem at the plant and whether this is a systemic problem and not just a local issue.
However, today, we often don't have all the information we need to protect public health. For example, in 2008, during an E. coli O157:H7 illness investigation in Kentucky, FSIS and our state partners found a retail firm to be a common source of ground beef eaten by those who got sick.
The retailer acknowledged it produced several beef grinds, but didn't maintain grinding logs. The retailer used possibly six to nine sources of meat in producing the grinds.
As a result, FSIS was unable to trace the products back to the source. If we had been able to identify the source or sources, we could have determined if other contaminated meat remained in commerce.
Doing so would have prevented other consumers from getting sick, enabled us to determine whether plants were still producing contaminated product, and allowed us to verify if corrective actions were working.
Clearly, reform is needed at the retail level where in many cases the traceback trail ends, but where it really should begin.
Many retailers don't keep records, or the records that they do keep are inadequate. Many retailers are small businesses with small staffs, so it is easy to understand why record keeping isn't a high priority. For some it could even be considered a burden.
So there clearly are challenges before us.
It should be said, however, that many retailers do a good job in maintaining records and consider it an important part of doing business. Safeway, for example, has made improvements in its grinding records after experiencing a number of recalls.
What's needed is basic documentation: the time and date the product is ground; exact product name and quantity; production codes; sell-by and use-by dates, for example.
Technology should make this task easier as well as numerous traceback models in the world that we can study.
And retail is just one point in the entire system where traceback needs to be improved. Each day, FSIS and industry tests products for microbial contamination. Efforts to determine the source of positive product that an establishment produces need to be robust to prevent contaminated product from reaching consumers.
The challenge doesn't end at our nation's borders. Nearly 3.3 billion pounds of meat and poultry are imported into the United States each year.
Trade in food is critical to our diet and permits our farmers and other food producers to sell their goods abroad. Foodborne illness, however, does not respect national borders so we need to be looking toward a seamless tracing system that reaches throughout the nation and the world.
This is no small task and will require that everyone in the food business must do their part and make traceability a priority. The good news is this forum brings together key parties with an interest in providing safe food. Let's use the power we all have to unite and make this nation a model for product tracing.
Again, thank you all for being here. I look forward to your input and your ideas. Let's make the time you're investing in this forum productive and worthwhile.