Officials Rebut Fears About U.S. Food Safety as Unscientific

By Kathryn McConnell
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - The United States has a "robust," science-based food safety system but needs to do more to tell foreign consumers about the system's thoroughness and effectiveness, says a top official of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

More communication to international consumers is needed because there is a "growing phenomenon of fear of the unknown" around the world about food safety, J.B. Penn said in an interview with the Washington File. Penn is under secretary of agriculture for farm and foreign agricultural services.

Another leading U.S. food expert and former head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), agrees. The United States spends approximately $2 billion annually at the federal level and more money at the state level for food safety, Lester Crawford said in a separate interview.

“U.S. law requires continuous inspection of every chicken and head of livestock when it is processed,” Crawford said. “If a USDA inspector isn’t present at the processing plant, the plant is not allowed to operate.”

The United States is urging its trading partners to join it in basing their agricultural and food import policies and regulations on internationally accepted scientific standards rather than on "misinformation," Penn said.

He said the United States backs the decisions of the three leading international organizations involved in food safety and agricultural trade. The World Trade Organization (WTO) relies on the three bodies to decide when it is safe to trade food products, he said.

The three are the World Organization for Animal Health (known as the OIE), the International Plant Protection Convention of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Codex Alimentarius, a joint food standards program of the World Health Organization (WHO) and FAO.

International consumers' fears about their potential exposure to food-borne diseases largely is due to low confidence in their national regulatory bodies, Penn said.

In contrast, "U.S. consumers are very confident in the government agencies responsible for maintaining food safety," he said. Those bodies are the Department of Health and Human Services' FDA, the USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

U.S. science-based food safety systems, developed over 100 years, are able to detect, quickly contain and eliminate a disease once it is discovered, Penn said.


The United States also uses what is known as the hazard analysis and critical control point (HACCP) system. Under this system, every meat and poultry plant in the United States must identify all food safety hazards that could occur during its processing operations and establish methods to reduce or eliminate those hazards.

“The United States is probably the only country that uses both systems,” Crawford said. “Some countries just use HACCP.  Others do something close to continuous inspection.  But no [other] country does both. … It’s very important that our international customers understand that not only do we have strong laws, we enforce them.”

In coordination with USDA, the U.S. food producing and processing industry is working to dispel public misconceptions about how livestock diseases are transmitted and about what consumers should be doing to maintain the safety of the food they consume, Penn said.

For example, in response to one issue of concern among some trading partners -– BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease) - Penn said the United States has spent billions of dollars developing and implementing interlocking systems to safeguard human and animal food supplies from becoming infected.

One is a national animal identification and registry system to track from birth to slaughter animals that might enter the food supply. U.S. officials say the system will help USDA identify all herd-mates of a diseased animal within 48 hours of the discovery of a serious livestock illness.

The national identification system, begun in 2004, will be fully operational by 2009, Penn said. Several countries already have similar systems but have the advantage of working with much smaller national herd sizes, he said.

Nearly 700,000 head of cattle have been tested since the inspection system went into effect, Crawford said.  He said that U.S. safeguards “virtually eliminate the possibility that someone in the United States or anywhere in the world” would get the human variant of BSE from consuming U.S. beef.

Penn said the United States has given Japan and Korean agriculture and trade officials all the information those countries had requested after a case of BSE - only the third in U.S. history - was discovered in a cow in Alabama in March.

The cow - born before restrictions on ingredients in animal feed went into effect in 1997 - quickly was identified by a veterinarian and eliminated. It did not enter the food stream, Penn said.

The United States now is waiting for Japan and Korea to decide if they will resume beef trade with the United States, he said.

Penn also said the United States has a "good plan" to detect an outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza, commonly known as bird flu, minimize its spread and eradicate it.

So far, the only reported cases of highly pathogenic bird flu in humans were in people who had been in close contract with infected birds. So far it has not mutated to a strain that could spread by human-to-human contact, he said.

On another agricultural topic, Penn said he is "heartened" that several countries, including China and some in Africa, now support research in biotechnology.  Many others, particularly in the Western Hemisphere, are developing science-based regulations for the use of biotechnology products.

The benefits of agricultural biotechnology are "tremendous" - both to farmers and to the environment, he said. Farmers achieve higher crop yields and, because fewer pesticides are used on farms, wildlife habitats and water quality have improved, Penn said.

Crawford said that largely as a result of the growing of biotechnology crops, the tonnage of pesticides used in the United States has declined by more than 50 percent since the 1970s.

Upwards of 400 million hectares worldwide now are planted with biotech seeds including more than three-fourths of the U.S soybean and cotton crops and half of the U.S. maize crop, he said.

More information on U.S. food safety programs is available on a Web site maintained by the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

For additional information, see Bird Flu and Agricultural Biotechnology.