While summer may appear to be a tranquil time in the world of government regulations, federal agencies are hard at work to ensure food safety and quality
While avian flu and mad cow disease have been covered prominently by the media, other issues, including the contamination of fresh-cut produce and the need to update general manufacturing practices, are equally significant for the food industry. The following report offers an in-depth look at the latest efforts by federal agencies to guarantee a safe food supply.
Between news reports, online materials and even a made-for-TV movie, avian influenza is a hard topic to avoid these days. The bird flu virus that is causing worldwide panic is a strain of a highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) called H5N1 HPAI. HPAI is highly contagious and fatal for birds. It should not be confused with the more commonly occurring low pathogenic avian influenza (LPAI), which typically causes little or no clinical illness in infected birds and does not pose a health risk to humans.
The importation of live birds and avian-derived products is regulated by the USDA. The USDA also oversees the safety of imported and domestically produced poultry meat, most poultry products, and pasteurized egg products. Countries with outbreaks of bird flu cannot export fresh, chilled, or frozen poultry or eggs into the U.S.
In April, the USDA posted a draft of a national avian influenza response plan to provide guidance through and explanation of the steps taken by the USDA, as well as state and industry groups, should H5N1 HPAI be discovered in the U.S. poultry industry or wild birds. The document is posted online for review and comments. The plan is intended to be a "living document" that incorporates the latest scientific information as well as industry advancements in bird flu detection and prevention.
Experts such as Dr. Elizabeth Krushinskie, vice president of food safety and production programs for the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association, say the USDA will be able to respond quickly and decisively if there is an outbreak of H5N1 HPAI in the U.S. "As an industry, we are in good shape," says Krushinskie. "The likelihood of the Asian H5N1 becoming a significant problem for the U.S. commercial poultry industry is slim to none due to a series of firewalls already in place. The U.S. poultry industry exemplifies the advantages of modern integrated agricultural production."
Mad Cow Disease
While not a new concern, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease, is a critical issue given a lot of attention by government agencies. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services describes BSE as characterized by a long incubation period of up to several years, during which there is no visible indication of the disease. The disease is fatal with no known treatment.
The first reported case of BSE in the U.S. was a dairy cow in Washington state in December 2003. The most recent case was earlier this month in Canada. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency confirmed the country's sixth case of BSE in a mature crossbred beef cow from Manitoba. In a report issued in April, experts at the USDA concluded "the prevalence of the disease in the U.S. is less than 1 case per million adult cattle, based on an adult cattle population in this country of 42 million animals." This ratio is attributed in large part to efforts by the U.S. government. The FDA imposed an animal feed ban rule in 1997 that has effectively kept BSE out of the human food and animal feed supplies. This rule prohibits, with exceptions, the use of protein derived from mammalian tissues in animal feed intended for cows and other ruminants.
In addition, following the first confirmation of BSE in an imported cow in 2003, the USDA designed and implemented the Enhanced BSE Surveillance Program. This plan is designed to provide an accurate determination of the level of disease present in the U.S. cattle population.
In April, the USDA made available a draft analysis of the Enhanced BSE Surveillance Program. This analysis includes an estimate of the prevalence of BSE in the U.S. The program succeeded in testing more than 690,000 animals, surpassing its goal of testing 268,500 animals since its launch in June 2004.
More information is available at www.aphis.usda.gov/newsroom/hot_issues/bse.shtml.
The FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition reports that the number of foodborne illnesses associated with fresh fruits and vegetables has doubled in the U.S. since the early 1990s. Some examples of fresh-cut products include shredded lettuce, salad mixes, peeled baby carrots, broccoli florets, cauliflower florets, and cut melons.
It's logical that anything not relying on a process such as cooking to kill harmful bacteria will be more susceptible to contamination. In addition, the FDA says the risk of contamination increases when peeling, slicing, and trimming break natural protective barriers.
Recent media attention has brought the issue of fresh-cut food contamination into the pubic eye. In October, Dole recalled 250,000 bags of pre-packaged salads in Minnesota after the products had been associated with an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7.
In March, the FDA distributed for comment a draft guidance on minimizing microbial food safety hazards of fresh-cut fruits and vegetables. Designed to offer helpful measures to fresh-cut processors to ensure safe produce, the draft guidance is not a set of binding requirements but rather helpful suggestions to avoid potentially dangerous, costly contamination.
More information is available at www.fresh-cuts.org.
Good Manufacturing Practices
Good manufacturing practices (GMPs) are regulations, codes, and guidelines for the methods, equipment, and facilities required to produce foods, dietary supplements, medical devices, and pharmaceutical products. GMPs are effective because they regulate production and testing processes themselves, rather than just sampling finished products. In the U.S., the FDA has issued these regulations as minimum requirements. They are designed to provide a quality system for manufacturers to follow, which in turn provides assurance to consumers that high-quality products are being produced.
In March 2003, the FDA developed a proposed rule for GMPs for the manufacturing, packing, and holding of dietary ingredients and supplements. The proposed rule was meant to establish the minimum GMPs necessary to ensure that dietary ingredients and supplements are not adulterated or misbranded. The proposed rule was published for comment, all comments were closely reviewed, and the proposed rule was revised. Sources at the FDA's Office of Food Safety, Defense and Outreach say the updated GMPs are currently drafted in final and are at the Office of Management and Budget for final regulatory review. This review is the last step in the regulatory development process. Once the Office of Management and Budget clears them, FDA will publish the updated GMPs in final. Currently, however, there is no timeline for final disposition.
More information is available at www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/supplmnt.html.