At the National Food Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Elisabeth Hagen outlined the USDA's vision for modernizing the department's food safety efforts on behalf of consumers. Hagen focused on three main aspects of improving food safety: prevention, tools and people.

"We hear those concerns about holes in the federal food safety net, and whether a 21st-century system can be built on century-old laws. We understand that being a true public health agency means more than simply calling ourselves one. It's a cultural shift. It's about ensuring that all regulations … all policies … all actions are done in the interest of public health. We hear you, and we're evolving to meet these, and other, modern food safety challenges," Hagen said.

She said the current U.S. food safety system is too reactionary, and that the FSIS is, and has been, moving toward a more proactive approach, citing faster recalls, better information and more education as ways to achieve this goal.

"The agency has policies that aim to prevent contamination, and industry has been largely successful at implementing them. Together, FSIS and industry have adapted processes at establishments that make recalls the exception, and not the rule," she said.

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Pathogens and traceback were two areas mentioned as challenges. Pathogens are not addressed in current policies, and, Hagen said, policies for traceback to the source should become fully aligned with the goal of prevention.

In terms of tools, Hagen said data is the most powerful -- having, gathering and analyzing it to move toward the goal of prevention. The Public Health Information System is one of those tools.

Finally, Hagen said personal commitment to making strides in the department also will be key.

"I've asked the FSIS workforce to always be mindful of that. To remember that whether they're inspecting products on the line; whether they're analyzing samples in the lab; if they're answering phones at a district office; or teaching kids about food safety, what they are really doing is protecting public health," she said.