So it's a way that's given us a lot more control over inspection. It has put
our inspectors more in a verification and inspection mode. It has certainly
brought science into the system, because we do microbial testing as part of our
inspection ... .
Can you explain how HACCP works?
... The easiest way I can explain it to you is if you think what happens in
your own kitchen. You're going to cook a roast for your family. You go to the
market and you buy the meat, bring it into the home. You're going to
refrigerate it and you want to make sure it's refrigerated at the proper
temperature. You get ready to prepare it. You're going to wash your hands
before you do that.
You're going to make sure the countertops are clean and cutting boards are
clean, that your knife is clean. ... After you season the meat and do whatever
you need to do it and you put it in a pot and you're going to cook it, you make
sure that that cooking is properly done, so that it's the right internal
So all these things that we know inherently by common sense: refrigeration,
keeping things clean, cooking to the right temperature -- these are critical
control points. These are points that we have to have control over to keep
things safe. And so HACCP is the same thing.
Imagine now in a food-processing plant, a meat-processing plant, a poultry-processing plant. ... It's the same kind of a concept. What are the steps that these guys or women are doing in those plants that they
have to have control over? And it's the same kinds of things. It's keeping
things in a sanitary condition, keeping them clean, what manipulations they do
with the meat with their utensils that they do it in such a way that they don't
contaminate the meat. ... It's a commonsense system. I think that's why it was
developed, because it made sense. It was the best way that NASA could find to
ensure the safety of food that they sent up for the astronauts. And rather than
produce food and hope against hope that it's safe, why not produce it in such a
way that you're taking a critical look at all these points -- controlling them?
Because if you control those points, the end product should be pretty clean,
and that's exactly the concept be behind HACCP. ...
You say that it is an improvement that gives us more control, more insight
into the inspection process. But you also say it gives more responsibility and
more authority to the companies themselves to do the process. Putting more
authority in the hands of the companies -- is that a good thing?
It's putting the authority squarely on our inspectors to enforce our
regulations. That has not changed. If anything, it's given us several tools as
inspectors to be able to discern when there's been loss of control. The part
where the industry comes in is their responsibility. They're the ones who make
the food, so they have to be the ones who conduct their processes in such a way
that it produces as safe a food as possible. Our job is to make sure that that
happens. So responsibility [for] the production of safe food [is] on them. But
it is our responsibility -- and our authority -- to close down plants that are
not compliant with our regulations. ...
We've talked to some of the current inspectors and former inspectors. Many
of them are confused about their role now. [They] feel that their authority has
been lessened, and that these are difficult jobs. They're on the line, and
they're concerned that the new inspection system actually leads to less safe
meat, because they aren't able to shut the line if they need to, or they aren't
the ones on the line looking at every carcass that goes by.
Certainly some of the things you said are not accurate, in the sense that we
shut down lines all the time. We shut down plants all the time. Last year alone
we took about 200 enforcement actions in plants in the United States. So we
very much have the authority to do that. Our inspectors have the authority to
follow the regulations and enforce them on a daily basis. ...
Inspectors absolutely have [the] authority [to shut down plants.] Certainly, I
suppose there's always the opportunity or the chance for some inspector to
maybe not understand what they need to do. But they need to go to their
supervisor, and their supervisor needs to satisfy their concerns. And if he or
she doesn't, then they can go up to the line. ...
I'm very aware of how, in some places, inspectors may be in situations where
they feel intimidated or harassed. Any kind of situation like [that], to me, is
absolutely unacceptable. We have pulled inspectors from some plants where that
has seemed to be taking place. I have tremendous respect for inspectors,
tremendous support of what they do. I know that they have maybe not the easiest
job sometime. So I am committed that, if there is truth to any charge that
anybody brings up, it warrants investigation. And we utilize all the objective
measures that we possibly can. ...
Given how contentious it can be in certain plants -- and it's the exception,
probably -- does it make sense to have moved towards a regulatory system that
gives companies more authority over the inspection process?
The HACCP system does not give the plants any authority. [It gives them]
responsibility. The authority is ours; we're the ones with the authority. We
are the ones who look at their sanitation programs. We're looking at their food
safety HACCP program. We're the ones looking at their records. We visually
monitor them as they do their day-to-day operations, as well as look at their
records. We do microbial testing to verify that everything is working as it
should. And we're the ones who shut them down -- so the authority is completely
ours, not the plants'. ...
But has the role of the inspector actually changed since the introduction of
HACCP? There seems to be disagreement from different parties here in terms of
how much they're actually on the line.
Well, remember when I was speaking to you about microbial contamination? Having
someone on the line looking hoping that they're going to see bacteria -- that's
never going to happen. They're microscopic. So what our inspectors do is they
utilize other tools. They're there all the time. We have inspectors in every
plant in the United States every day -- 7,600 inspectors, more or less.
And so the way their role has changed is that they certainly are more
science-based. They are not simply looking at what is visibly OK, but they are
engaging in holding the plants accountable for what they do to make sure that
the product is as clean as possible. In addition to that, the microbial testing
that we do has added that element of science. Now we can look at the invisible
bacteria that might be there, and utilize that information as a tool to say to
us, "If there's bacteria here, according to these tests that we just conducted,
perhaps it's an indicator that we need to look more closely at some of the
things that the plant is doing." ...
Given all the interventions, given all the money that's spent, given the
implementation of this science-based system, why haven't we seen a more
significant change in the food-borne illnesses?
If you speak with the Centers for Disease Control, they put out a report about
a year ago or so where they actually said that the incidence of food-borne
illness has decreased. And to give you another completely different
organization, the Center for Science in the Public Interest just put out a
report where they they've been keeping track of cases of food-borne illness and
so forth. And in the last year or so, I think the data they show about the vast
majority -- 75 percent to 80 percent -- of the cases of food-borne illnesses in
this country are not even due to meat or poultry. They're other foods. ... They're seafoods that we don't regulate here at the USDA. So there
has been a tremendous improvement, if you consider certainly the data
that the Centers for Disease Control published about a year ago.
You can see that the trend is beginning to go down. Can we do better? Always.
And what I'm hoping to see is that the trend continues, and every year we keep
knocking those levels down as much as we can.
Will the USDA [appeal the Supreme Beef case]?
We don't have plans at this time to do that. The Supreme Beef decision
is one that, when we looked at it, did not take away our authority to enforce
our regulation. We still can shut down plants, and we have been since the
Supreme decision came out in December. So it hasn't affected our authority to
shut down plants. ... We continue to test for salmonella. But we use those
results to point us to what we may have to do in order to see what the plant
may be missing in their implementation of HACCP.
As an example, if you take your blood pressure, that's the same thing as our
microbial testing. Taking your blood pressure indicates that you maybe need to
look at your diet, your exercise, your overall health, because that's where you
need to maybe make some changes to improve your blood pressure. So similarly,
the salmonella tests that we do alert us to looking at the food safety
programs, the HACCP, the sanitation of a plant, because something might need to
be fixed. And again, the authority's the same, in the sense that we still can
shut down plants. But we shut them down based on their failure to meet those
food-safety standards, and not only on the tests.
But part of the promise of HACCP was that you would have these microbial
standards that would allow you to be sure that the process was happening
correctly, that the critical control points were working. Now that guarantee
has been weakened, because you cannot use that to close a plant. You have to go
through a more cumbersome process of trying to find other problems in that
plant. That seems like a serious weakening of USDA's authority. ...
The microbial tests are actually fulfilling the promise of HACCP. HACCP always
has included microbial testing as verification, and I'm sure always will.
That's why we have continued to test regardless of the Supreme Beef decision,
because it is an integral part of HACCP. ... Instead of
rely[ing] on one indicator, we rely on looking at the total package, just like your
doctor doesn't rely simply on the on your blood pressure test to tell you that
you're a lost cause.
[The] former secretary of agriculture says that this Supreme Beef decision
is a serious blow to food safety. Is he wrong?
I think Secretary Glickman has misunderstood the Supreme Beef decision.
I'm a scientist. I've been working in food safety research for many, many
years, more than I can tell you. And I know that he's mistaken in his
conclusion, from a scientific point of view. ... I can only speak for what
science says, and that's what guides my thought process and my decision-making.
Obviously you have great credibility as a scientist, but this is also an
issue of regulation and how you get companies to do things that they may not
necessarily want to do, or that are against their economic interest. Most
companies in the industry are doing an excellent job meeting the goals, but the
problem becomes what do you do about the ones that aren't meeting the goals,
that aren't willing to get--
You shut them down.
But now you have one less tool to do so. You've got to go back and prove
that there are problems in their process.
And that's very easy for us to do, because of our inspectors being there every
day. The microbial test, again, is one indicator. Think about it this way. If a
plant is doing so many horrible things, as an example, that the test comes out
positive, our inspector already has seen that they're doing some very horrible
things. And I can tell you right now, in fact, over the last year, we took more
actions against plants due to HACCP and sanitation failures than based on the
salmonella tests. ...
Why do we see so many recalls?
If you look at the data on recalls, let's say for this year, even 2002, the
vast majority of the recalls that are done are as a result of our inspectors
finding contaminants. They're not as a result of people getting sick. No one's
gotten sick yet.
We find the contaminants. We tell the company. The company recalls the product
-- the vast majority. So, if anything, it proves that our system of inspection
is working, because we're there identifying problems on the plant. ...
How we handle recalls is we try to get all the data as quickly as we can, to
try to recommend to the plant that they issue a recall. No plant has ever
refused a recall. When we recommend them to recall, they immediately do it. And
the thing to do is to recall as quickly as possible, obviously, to retrieve as
much product as possible. And I don't have figures in front of me. But it's
certainly a high percentage, because it relies on our ability to identify these
problems as quickly as we can; that is our commitment, and it is what we try to
do as much as we possibly can. ...
Should the USDA have mandatory recall authority?
I don't think we need mandatory recall authority. ... Companies always have
complied. But let's say that there's one company out there that decides, "I'm
not going to do it." We have detention authority. We have seizure authority by
law, not to mention the fact that we can certainly put out a press release, and
certainly companies don't want to have bad press. That's a fact. But the
detention and seizure authority that we have enables us to, even if a plant
decides not to do a recall, to detain that product, to seize that product from
the market. And that's something that other agencies in the government don't
We have an incredibly efficient food system in this country that is
responsible for remarkable achievements: abundant, inexpensive food; the price
of meat is down nearly by half since 1970, I understand. But in so doing, we've
created this system, this massive machine, whereby the risks are magnified
through the system. It used to be if you had one sick cow, the 10 people who
ate it would get ill. Now that one cow could be ground into a half-million
pounds of ground beef and be in 17 states in a week.
There are a couple of elements to your question, to your comment. First of all,
no sick cows are used in meat and poultry today.
Well, E. coli-infected.
E. coli-infected -- that's probably more accurate. I'll just tell you
from my perspective as a regulatory agency. It matters not to me if it's a
small plant, if it's a medium plant, if it's a large plant, because we have the
same inspection system in all of these plants. We have the appropriate number
of inspectors, depending on the size of the plant. Our job is to make sure that
the meat and poultry that is produced and processed in the United States is as
safe as possible. ... As a scientist, I would certainly like to see data from a
study, if anybody's done it, to see whether your hypothesis is correct.
Dan Glickman says that the meat supply is safer today than it was 10 years
ago, but that if something goes wrong, the risks are monumental.
... Certainly the distribution of food in this country, the fact that we have
food that is distributed very quickly to many places, puts ... the onus on the industry to be as vigilant as possible. And certainly [it puts the onus on] us, the inspector force, to be as vigilant as possible, so that the meat and poultry that goes out is as clean as possible. It doesn't matter,
in my opinion, if 10 people get sick versus 100 people get sick. I don't want
anybody to get sick. And so I'm treating every plant and every situation with
the same importance.
But you're saying the burden is on you, the regulators. and on industry. But
in some ways, the burden falls on the consumer because there is no way for
them to know which is the meat coming from the good plants versus the
problematic plants. ...
Your mother, my mother, and I think everybody's mother always told us, "[You need to] wash your hands before you eat and put leftovers in the refrigerator promptly." All these commonsense things have been around for many years. It's not an alien
concept. ... I think people understand that you want the person preparing
your salad to wash their hands. You want the person who's preparing your
sandwich to wash their hands and wash their knives and use ingredients that are
as clean as possible, and not to put food that you're going to eat in
the raw state on a dirty surface, and so forth. So it is the responsibility of
industry to produce as safe food as possible.
It is the authority of the inspection force to make sure that that's the case.
But consumers have a role to play in making sure that, in preparing the food
for their families, they also do so in a way that it doesn't introduce
contaminants either. ...
You're very reassuring to talk to about this. But there are enormous risks
out there. We have 15 percent of our meat supply coming in from other
countries, problems with inspection related to that. We've seen cases [where] countries that were banned [from] import[ing] meat here actually got through
the controls. Given the efficiency of the system, it can get out very quickly.
So if we have a problem, if there is a mistake, the ramifications could be
I don't agree with what you said that non-inspected meat has come into the
country, and you'll see why I say that. We have about 130 or 140 points of
entry where meat gets imported into the United States by other countries. For a
country to export to the U.S., for us to import it from them, they have to
basically submit evidence that they have a system of inspection that's
equivalent to ours -- the same HACCP thing that I've been talking about, the
sanitation and so forth.
But that's not enough for them to tell us that. We go to the country; we send
our people to see for themselves, to go to plants and [say] not only, "Show me the
paperwork that certifies that you have these systems, but show me in action
that you have these systems; that you have inspectors there; that the
inspectors are trained; that they're there on a daily basis in plants." The
same thing as we have here.
It doesn't stop there. When the meat gets exported to the United States, our
inspectors which are in those same 130, 140 points of entry inspect the meat
and poultry that comes in. And we have found occasionally that there are
problems with either mislabeling, or there's contamination or something like
that. That immediately alerts the agency to put that country basically on
alert, and makes us go do an audit and make sure that things are corrected. And
if they're not corrected, we have delisted countries and banned them from
exporting to the U.S. because of food safety. ...
You are the government official in charge of all meat and poultry food
safety. Given the new risks that are out there, that we're not even aware of --
what keeps you up at night?
Certainly we all have, after Sept, 11, been affected by those
events and by the continuing threat that terrorism plays. Because of that, we
have been extremely diligent in pursuing what we need to do. Given that, we
have this infrastructure that I've been talking about, of inspectors with
highly trained background ... using HACCP and other science-based
systems to make sure that meat and poultry is as safe as possible. And using
that infrastructure, we have been engaging in activities that have been
designed to focus on how we can prevent as much as possible the introduction of
an intentional contaminant. ...
Certainly if terrorists wanted to affect a large number of
people, it would be very difficult to do it through meat and poultry because
of the controls that we have in the plants themselves. ... But if anything
gives me pause, if you will, it's the fact that we as a nation, perhaps some
years from now, will grow complacent.
And that's what I'm committed not to let happen -- that we continually are
vigilant. Because regardless of whether a contaminant is intentional or
unintentional, we have to be there to make sure that the meat and poultry that
people eat is as safe as possible. ...
What is the risk of BSE being introduced into the U.S.?
First of all, let me begin by saying that we have never had a case of Mad Cow
Disease, thank goodness. Harvard University just finished a risk-assessment
study that they did for the USDA. ... Their conclusion was, because of the measures that we had
taken already in the United States ... that the United States is "highly
resistant to BSE," which is a good thing to hear.
Now, does that mean that we rest on our laurels? Absolutely not. We continue to
be very vigilant. And in fact as an agency, one of the things that that we're
doing is looking at what other measures we may consider, putting those into the
model, and seeing if they will affect the risk of BSE or not. ...
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