During IAFP’s (International Association of Food Protection) recent annual meeting in Louisville, Ky., Food Quality & Safety had a chance to catch up with two key USDA staff members who are fairly new to their positions.
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Mindy Brashears, PhD, USDA’s Deputy Undersecretary for Food Safety, joined USDA on Jan. 29, 2019. She was nominated by President Donald Trump in May 2018 to be Under Secretary for Food Safety, has been cleared by the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, and is awaiting the full Senate’s confirmation.
Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) Administrator Carmen Rottenberg, JD, has been in her current role for two years and with USDA for 12 years. FSIS, a USDA agency, ensures the safety of the commercial meat, poultry, and egg supply.
When asking the duo about the most critical issues facing today’s food supply, Dr. Brashears says having the ability to quickly identify sources of outbreaks and illnesses is key. “Fortunately, genomic sequencing enables us to have traceability capabilities,” she said. “Despite this advancement, however, the number of public health agencies and hospitals that culture isolates is declining. Without an isolate, it’s difficult to do a trace back.”
To help resolve the issue, USDA publishes isolates associated with different foods on its website. “We are moving toward publishing the whole genomic sequence online as well as antibiotic resistant patterns of isolates in an effort to be transparent,” Dr. Brashears says.
Rottenberg points out the agency is also focused on consumer perception and information sharing. “It’s exciting that consumers want to know more about their food,” she says. Consequently, FSIS is now publishing data set information on its website for everyone’s accessibility. In the past, the public could only obtain this information through the Freedom of Information Act.
When asked what Dr. Brashears hopes to achieve in her current position, she says, “I want to prevent foodborne illness and protect public health. To achieve this, all of our efforts are data driven and science based. Some modernized inspection systems have 20 years of data to support them. The agency makes decisions with a great amount of thought and preparation.”
Rottenberg is focused on modernizing inspection systems and scientific processes and procedures, as well as updating policies to reflect innovations. “We have proposed amended egg product inspection regulations, and we want to expand our accredited laboratory program and generic labeling regulations,” she says. Furthermore, FSIS’ proposed rule to modernize swine inspection has new requirements for microbial testing at all swine slaughterhouses and a new inspection system for market hog slaughter establishments.
Dr. Brashears believes IAFP is an important conference to attend because it is the leading food safety conference in the world. “It brings together people from science, government, and industry and provides a place to present cutting-edge research,” she says.
“IAFP is comprised of more than 4,000 food safety professionals globally,” adds Rottenberg. “The conference serves as a forum to exchange ideas and information on protecting the food supply.”
This year’s event was held from July 21-24 in Louisville, Ky. Next year’s location is scheduled for Cleveland, Ohio.