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Lester M. Crawford, D.V.M., Ph.D. - National Food Processors Association

This text contains Dr. Crawford's prepared remarks. It should be used with the understanding that some material may have been added or deleted during actual delivery.

National Food Processors Association
Food Safety Summit

Lester M. Crawford, D.V.M., Ph.D.
Deputy Commissioner
Food and Drug Administration
March 14, 2002
Washington, D.C.

Good morning. It's a real pleasure to be back among friends and colleagues here at NFPA. As many of you know, I worked for John Cady back in the early '90's. John, I appreciate the opportunity to be here—thank you.

Let me also say how pleased I am to be back at the Food and Drug Administration. For those of you who may not know, this is not my first stint at the FDA. I started my FDA career in 1975 at what was then the Bureau of Veterinary Medicine, and returned later as the Director of FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine, on not one, but two occasions.

To have the opportunity to lead FDA—particularly at a time when food safety and food security are among the top priorities for the Department and the FDA--is both an honor and a privilege. It's gratifying to see such a good turnout from the food industry.

We each have a critical role to play in ensuring the safety of food produced for American consumers--food safety is not something that can be accomplished by any one organization alone, and the stakes are higher today than they've ever been.

I intend to support and foster the good working relationship that the FDA enjoys with the food industry. Much of the credit for the collaborative relationship we have goes to Joe Levitt, the Director of CFSAN, and to each of you for your role in ensuring food safety.

The U.S. would not have the strong and credible food safety system that we have today, without your commitment to the health and well-being of American consumers.

I think we can all agree that the U.S. food supply continues to be among the safest in the world. The federal food safety system today has better prevention programs, new surveillance systems, faster outbreak response, and more focused research and risk assessment. The agencies involved in food safety are working closely and cooperatively toward a common goal.

However, as everyone in this room well knows, we’ve seen no shortage of challenges. The incidence of foodborne illness in this country has improved dramatically yet is still unacceptably high—you may have heard these figures before, but they bear repeating…76 million cases of foodborne disease each year, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5000 deaths, every year, according to CDC.

This is partly due to the increasingly global nature of the U.S. food supply, and the fact that the sheer number of foods imported into this country is rising at an astonishing rate, increasing the potential sources of food contamination.

More of the foods we purchase are processed or "ready to eat."

In addition, we as consumers are eating out far more often than we did in the past. As you can imagine, the more people that handle our food, the more opportunity there is for disease-causing errors.

Evolution is working against us. The ability of existing pathogens to overcome traditional food barriers such as high temperature and acidity present an ongoing challenge. New foodborne pathogens continue to emerge.

We are aware of more than five times the number of foodborne pathogens today than we were fifty years ago, and we continue to discover more. Many of these pathogens are deadly, especially for those at highest risk.

And many more people are at higher risk for foodborne illness—children, pregnant women, the elderly, and the immunocompromised—together these groups make up almost 25 percent of the U.S. population.

BSE continues to warrant serious attention, though to date no BSE has been detected in this country. BSE may not be getting the attention it was six to nine months ago but it’s an ongoing concern, and an area where we can’t afford to let our guard down.

Antibiotic resistance is another threat that must be continually monitored.

Food biotechnology continues to evolve, creating enormous potential for improved food production and nutrition, but raising questions about food safety and safety to the environment—and in some cases, challenging consumer acceptance.

The challenges I’ve mentioned thus far are the food safety challenges that were uppermost in our minds last September 10th.

In each of these cases, FDA has used a solidly science-based approach; decisions have been based on the best science available, and action taken accordingly. Each of these areas is still very important to us.

But on September 11th, a different kind of threat arose. We had long suspected that there were individuals and organizations out there with the intent to terrorize and do real harm to our people. Our suspicions were confirmed—with an intensity few of us could have foreseen.

While food safety was not an immediate issue following the terrorist attacks, the realization of just how vulnerable our food sources could be in such an environment sent food security to the top of our list of priorities.

Was FDA considering the possibility of terrorism involving the U.S. food supply prior to September 11? Of course. The events of September 11 gave us a reason to be even more vigilant.

I hope you had a chance to hear Joe Levitt, the Director of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, speak yesterday about FDA’s food security activities.

An important point that Joe makes is that whatever enhancements we make in the name of food security will strengthen the mechanisms already in place to assure the safety of food, whether it's food produced in this country or imported from other countries.

Thanks to the budget support of food safety initiatives by Congress these past few years, and the strong support of Secretary Thompson in the past year, particularly since the events of last fall, we’ve been able to make substantial progress.

We’ve developed a food security action plan that includes strategies for threat assessment and emergency preparedness for addressing food counterterrorism and food security. We’re in the process of hiring and training additional personnel—approximately 600 people--to strengthen the surveillance of imported foods.

We’ve developed guidance for industry on how food establishments can increase their preparedness and enhance the security of their products. And we’ve been able to strengthen our coordination with other federal, state and local organizations on food counterterrorism issues.

Another key point Joe made is that we have no evidence right now (unless Director Ridge tells us otherwise…) that food is a target. But we can’t deny that it's a possibility and we need to be prepared.

Food safety and security are closely related. We’ve all become more vigilant and better prepared for what is reasonably foreseeable. We’ve learned that unexpected things can happen and that we need to have the flexibility to respond swiftly and effectively.

Our food safety system has three basic steps, and these apply to food security as well:

  1. identify risks,
  2. take action, and
  3. measure results.

A strong science base is essential in identifying risks, and risk assessment is the foundation of any successful food safety system. Surveillance—knowing where the problems are and identifying new problems rapidly--is key to maintaining an effective emergency response capability.

In taking action we must start with prevention, including strong prevention standards, and education and training so that the industry and the public can reduce the risk and the harm of foodborne illness.

Inspection programs are critical as well, for both domestically produced and imported food. Finally, to measure results, we need science-based methods to quantify the progress we’re making. Many of these mechanisms, which you may be familiar with, are already in place or in pilot stages—systems such as FoodNet, PulseNet, and eLEXNET.

In closing let me emphasize that the responsibility for food safety and security rests with all of us…federal government, state and local governments, all components of the food industry--from farmers, to processors, to retailers and restaurateurs--and consumers.

The FDA will continue to rely on science—just as we always have--to solve public health problems as they arise. And we’re counting on your continued support and commitment as well. I genuinely look forward to working closely with all of you in the weeks and months ahead.

I believe I have about five minutes to take your questions and I’d be happy to do so.