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New proposals represent shift in food safety strategy, FDA

By Rory Harrington , 03-Aug-2009
Last updated the 03-Aug-2009 at 13:27 GMT

The US Government has announced further measures to curb the spread of food-borne diseases such as E.coli just days after lawmakers approved the bill overhauling the country’s food safety system.

Proposals to expand E.coli testing of beef and draft guidance aimed at “minimising or eliminating” contamination of leafy greens, tomatoes and melons were highlighted on Friday by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

The pair said “prevention and partnership” would guide their respective departments’ efforts to boost food safety. Success of the strategy would hinge on “working closely with growers, food processors and consumers to achieve their goals”, they said in joint statement.

FDA commissioner Dr Margaret Hamburg hailed the significance of the draft guidelines on the fruit and vegetables as a shift in strategy for the US food safety system from reacting to events to one that is based on preventing food-borne hazards.

The moves come in the wake of the House of Representatives passing a bill to radically increase oversight of the US food industry.

E.coli testing expanded

The USDA confirmed plans to increase testing on certain “leftover” cuts from steak and other meat in a bid to slash incidences of E.coli in ground beef. Guidance will be issued to plant inspectors to begin conducting routine sampling of the so-called bench trim for the potentially deadly bug, the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) said.

The strategy also involves simplifying and shortening instructions for inspections as the agency steps up its bid to combat E.coli. The department said plant assessors will receive “streamlined, consolidated instructions for inspection, sampling and other actions” to reduce E.coli 0157:H7 in beef and “provide a simplified procedure to find and eliminate E.coli before it reaches consumers”.

“Making prevention a priority is critical to reducing food-borne illness and one of the three food safety principles of President Obama’s Food Safety Working Group.” said Vilsack.

Shift in strategy

Vilsack and Sebelius also praised new Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines to improve safety of leafy greens, tomatoes and melons. The draft proposals, unveiled separately, are aimed at the entire supply chain; from growers and packers through to processors, transporters and retailers, said the FDA.

The agency said it is seeking comments on the proposals within 90 days, which it hopes will provide a framework for minimising the risk of food-borne bacteria in the fruit and vegetables.

“These new food safety guidelines will facilitate the development of enforceable food safety standards and ensure a safer supply of fresh food for all Americans,” said FDA chief Hamburg. “The three draft guidances are designed to help growers and others across the entire supply chain minimize or eliminate contamination in leafy greens, tomatoes, and melons that can cause foodborne illnesses.”

“We must set as our highest priority the creating of enforceable standards for food safety that prevent the food Americans eat from ever becoming contaminated.”

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