Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack spoke at the annual conference of the International Association for Food Protection about the U.S. Department of Agriculture's ongoing efforts to safeguard American consumers from foodborne illnesses. Recent actions taken by USDA to strengthen industry safeguards are aimed at improving the safety of the food Americans serve their families.

"With more than 330 billion meals served to Americans each year, the scale of the challenge to ensure safe food is enormous, but ensuring the safety of our food is USDA's top priority," said Vilsack. "Today, USDA and our federal partners are collaborating more than ever before to improve and modernize the food safety system based on prevention. It is our duty to make sure that producers provide safe food, that consumers and others have the tools necessary to get safe food to their families, and that we're supporting the research and education needed to ensure advancements in the safety of our food."

Foodborne illness, or food poisoning, is a serious public health threat in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that approximately 1 in 6 Americans—48 million people—suffer from foodborne illness each year, resulting in approximately 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths annually.

During his first 100 days in office, President Obama created the Food Safety Working Group (FSWG), which developed three core principles to help guide food safety in the United States: prioritizing prevention, strengthening surveillance and enforcement, and improving response and recovery. Since that time, USDA has announced a variety of new measures to safeguard the public from foodborne illnesses, including:

  • Announced implementation of revised and new performance standards which require establishments slaughtering chicken and turkey to make continued reductions in the occurrence of pathogens. USDA expects the new standards to prevent as many as 25,000 foodborne illnesses.
  • Proposed a new requirement for the meat and poultry industry called "test and hold" that, once enacted, will significantly reduce the amount of unsafe food reaching consumers.
  • Launched the Mobile Ask Karen app (m.AskKaren.gov on your phone's mobile browser), a Web-based smartphone application that brings accessible food safety information to consumers in a new way—via their smartphones. Users can utilize this app at the grocery store, barbecue grill, and kitchen stovetop.
  • Proposed a new rule to simplify labeling language for raw meat and poultry products that include injections, marinades, or have otherwise incorporated added solutions which may not be visible to the consumer.
  • Launched the Public Health Information System, a modern repository for key data about public health trends and food safety violations at the nearly 6,100 plants FSIS regulates across the country.
  • Started an initiative to cut down E. coli contamination including stepped-up meat facility inspections to involve greater use of sampling to monitor the products going into ground beef.
  • Began testing of additional components of ground beef, including bench trim, and issued new instructions to our employees asking that they verify that plants follow sanitary practices in processing beef carcasses.
  • Issued consolidated, more effective field instructions on how to inspect for E. coli O157:H7 contamination.
  • And worked to make humane handling oversight and enforcement stronger and more consistent. In December 2010, the Department banned the slaughter of non-ambulatory cattle for use in human food, and initiated hands-on, practical training on humane handling.

Cooperation essential

In addition, in late June, USDA joined the Ad Council, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the CDC to debut Food Safe Families, the first joint public service campaign to help families prevent foodborne illnesses in the home. This campaign reminds Americans to clean kitchen surfaces, utensils and hands while preparing food; separate raw meats from other foods by using different cutting boards; cook foods to the correct temperatures; and, chill raw and prepared foods promptly.

During his remarks in Milwaukee, Vilsack stressed the cooperation between government, industry and consumers to ensure the safety of our food, "No one entity can do it alone," said Vilsack. "Safe food takes committed researchers and scientists, producers, food processors and retailers. Government, of course, is an important part of the partnership. When food is safe we all win. Americans can feed themselves, their families and others with the confidence that food won't make them sick."

The full text of Vilsack's speech is available online.