June 10, 2011


Prevention is key, says U.S. undersecretary for food safety

"If we're not keeping people from getting sick, we're not doing our job," said Elisabeth Hagen, undersecretary for food safety at the U. S. Department of Agriculture in a May 23 visit to campus.

Hagen's visit was part of the Obama Administration's charge to be out and about, listening to people's concerns.

Hagen, who's been in the job nine months, heads the Food Safety Inspection Service.

"Meat, poultry and processed eggs is what we regulate," said Hagen. "We were involved in the inspection of over 150 million head of livestock last year and 9 million birds."

Providing some sobering statistics, she said, "Forty-eight million people get sick every year from the food that they eat, or 1 in 6 Americans, causing 128,000 hospitalizations and killing over 3,000 people this year, according to CDC predictions and costing more than $150 billion."

"Our work is based in science and executed through prevention," she said, noting that "prevention is the lens through which we view everything we do" with "people our foremost priority." 

"We have over 8,000 inspection personnel in every single meat and poultry establishment in this country every single day," Hagen said. "This is what we feel is our mission: We protect public health by ensuring the safety and proper labeling of commercial meat, poultry and egg products."

Hagen said FSIS is very involved in response to disease outbreak, working closely with the CDC, the FDA and state health departments.

Earlier this year it announced tough new standards for the poultry industry, in an effort to reduce salmonella. "The poultry industry has done a good job of driving down salmonella. Rates are currently historically low; about half what they were five years ago," she pointed out.

FSIS launched a public health information system last month, a project to better collect and interpret data, interfacing with databases with CDC and elsewhere in USDA, "so we can get a picture of what's going on in the with human and animal illnesses."

One of the biggest challenges in food safety, Hagen said, is attribution — where did an outbreak or contamination come from?

"We're continuing to push prevention further upstream in the process," she said of her data-drive agency. "And I feel good about the way this administration is prioritizing food safety."

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