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photo of muranointerview: elsa murano

How did the introduction of the HACCP [Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point] system change the process of inspecting meat and poultry?

The inspection system before HACCP had mainly to do with inspectors relying on what they could see, and trying to carry out their inspection that way. ... Visual inspection of an animal is fine. But when it came time to looking, certainly to see if there's bacterial contamination on meat, then your eyes are not certainly sufficient.

HACCP has injected process control, if you will, into the system. So what we as inspectors do is we make sure that the plant people are controlling their steps in their processing of that product, and monitoring that control to make sure that the end result -- the meat that's served on your kitchen table -- is as safe from contaminants as can be ensured.

Elsa Murano is undersecretary of food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where she oversees the policies and programs of the Food Safety Inspection Service. Here, Murano says that HACCP, the new system regulating the inspection of meat and poultry production, has improved the safety of America's meat supply.

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.

Im very aware of how in some places inspectors may be in situations where they feel intimidated or harassed.

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 temperature.

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 have. ...

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 enormous.

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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