Casey: Keep Food Safety Inspectors on the Job

Salmonella Outbreak Highlights Need for Better Coordination

WASHINGTON, DC In response to reports of an antibiotic-resistant strain of salmonella that has sickened at least 77 people nationwide, including 5 in Pennsylvania, U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) today sent letters to President Obama and U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius urging them to increase coordination among agencies and keep inspectors on the job.

“Because it is my priority to protect the health and safety of Pennsylvanians, I believe that we must keep food safety inspectors doing their jobs,” Senator Casey wrote. “While seeking to better control our economy, we cannot lose control over the safety of our national food supply. We need to give Americans peace of mind that the foods they eat and give to their families are safe to consume. ” 

Senator Casey requested an update on the status of enhancing the foodborne illness surveillance network, action required by the Food Safety Modernization Act signed into law earlier this year. Over 300,000 Americans are sent to the hospital for cases of foodborne illness each year, Senator Casey wrote, underscoring the need for improved coordination and continued inspections.

Versions of Senator Casey’s letter to Secretary Sebelius were also sent to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and the Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

The full text of Senator Casey’s letters are below:

Dear Mr. President:

Over the course of five months, an antibiotic-resistant strain of salmonella has sickened at least 77 people, including 5 Pennsylvanians, and has taken the life of one person.  Maintaining a safe food supply, that is ensuring contaminated foods do not make it onto our kitchen tables or into our children’s lunchboxes, is one of the most vitally important responsibilities of the Federal government.  This is why, as the Nation develops ways to reduce Federal spending, it is imperative that the food safety system remains strong.  Because it is my priority to protect the health and safety of Pennsylvanians, I believe that we must keep food safety inspectors doing their jobs. 

The employees at the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) who inspect meat and poultry facilities, those at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) who inspect dairy farms, animal feed processors, foreign manufacturing and processing sites for food being imported into the United States and those at the FDA and the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) who inspect imported products at the border are critical to keeping our food safe.  While seeking to better control our economy, we cannot lose control over the safety of our national food supply.  A strong national food safety system allows for consumers, both domestic and international, to have confidence that American food is a source of nourishment, not illness. 

Thank you for your leadership on this important issue. 

Sincerely,

Robert P. Casey, Jr.

United States Senator

Dear Secretary Sebelius:

With the recent report of a multi-state outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg infection, I am concerned about the status of foodborne illness surveillance systems not only as a lawmaker, but also as a consumer and a father.  Over the course of five months, an antibiotic-resistant strain of salmonella has infected at least 77 people, including 5 Pennsylvanians, and has taken the life of one person.

Ensuring that our food supply, both domestic and foreign food products, is safe is a high priority for me.  My constituents, and all Americans, have every right to expect a safe food supply.  We need to give Americans peace of mind that the foods they eat and give to their families are safe to consume. 

Yet, there are 76 million cases of foodborne illness in this country every year.  These illnesses send an estimated 300,000 Americans to the hospital each year and they kill an estimated 5,000 individuals yearly.  Many of these deaths occur in vulnerable members of our communities: young children, the elderly or those with chronic illnesses. 

I have called for improved coordination between Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the various other Federal and State agencies charged with regulating food safety and foodborne illness.  I am also concerned about possible “turf battles” existing between officials at the Federal, State and local health agencies.  It is simply reckless and irresponsible if these battles result in a delayed response to a report of foodborne illness.  I ask in the interest of public health that food safety officials more constructively collaborate to protect Americans from foodborne illness and rapidly respond in the event of an outbreak.

While I applaud some of the steps taken by the agencies to improve partnership through the CDC’s Outbreak Response Team (OutbreakNet) and other actions, I question whether more can be done to protect the health of our nation’s citizens. Because of these concerns, I seek your cooperation in answering the following questions:

  • What is the status of enhancing the foodborne illness surveillance network required under Section 205 of the Food Safety Modernization Act?  I am especially interested in the responsibilities as listed in the Act, including:
    • coordinating Federal, State and local foodborne illness surveillance systems and increasing participation in national networks of public health and food regulatory agencies and laboratories;
    • facilitating sharing of surveillance information on a more timely basis among governmental agencies, including the FDA, USDA, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and State and local agencies, and with the public;
    • developing improved epidemiological tools for obtaining quality exposure data and microbiological methods for classifying cases;
    • augmenting such systems to improve attribution of a foodborne illness outbreak to a specific food;
    • expanding capacity of such systems for implementation of identification practices for foodborne infectious agents, in order to identify new or rarely documented causes of foodborne illness and submit standardized information to a centralized database; and
    • integrating foodborne illness surveillance systems and data with other biosurveillance and public health situational awareness capabilities at the Federal, State, and local levels.
  • What is the status of the foodborne illness surveillance working group required by Section 205(b)(2) of the Food Safety Modernization Act?  The working group is expected to provide advice and recommendations regarding the improvement of foodborne illness surveillance and implementation, including:
    • the priority needs of regulatory agencies, the food industry, and consumers for information and analysis on foodborne illness and its causes;
    • opportunities to improve the effectiveness of initiatives at the Federal, State, and local levels, including coordination and integration of activities among Federal agencies, and between the Federal, State, and local levels of government;
    • improvement in the timeliness and depth of access by regulatory and health agencies, the food industry, academic researchers, and consumers to foodborne illness aggregated, de-identified surveillance data collected by government agencies at all levels, including data compiled by the CDC;
    • key barriers at Federal, State, and local levels to improving foodborne illness surveillance and the utility of such surveillance for preventing foodborne illness; and
    • the capabilities needed for establishing automatic electronic searches of surveillance data.
  • How specifically does CDC plan to increase its coordination with State and local health agencies to expedite the response to outbreaks?  Is CDC in a position to provide greater technical assistance or other support? 
  • What practices or capabilities should states have in place to alert CDC as soon as possible about a potential outbreak?  What tools do local and state health officials need to quickly report illnesses or outbreaks?

We all want food for our families that is nutritious and free from foodborne pathogens and contaminants.  We need to make sure that we are vigilant and vigorously monitor and enhance our food safety system, so that Pennsylvanians and all Americans can continue to be confident that the food they eat is safe.

I urge you to take further action to improve the system and coordination amongst food safety agencies.  I appreciate your attention to this important matter and look forward to continue working with you in the future.

Sincerely,

Robert P. Casey, Jr.

United States Senator

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