WASHINGTON—Those responsible for overseeing the safety of U.S. meat and poultry must take additional steps to protect consumers from newly emerging pathogens and from evolving strains of existing microbes, according to a report released today by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The report, “Emerging Pathogens in Meat and Poultry,” identifies the ways in which evolving bacterial and viral threats present an ever-changing danger to public health, and it outlines strategies for confronting the challenge posed by emerging pathogens.
Meat and poultry are among the leading vehicles for foodborne illness around the world and are responsible for sickening more than 2 million people in the U.S. each year. Pew’s report highlights the fact that risks posed by foodborne pathogens do not remain static. Food producers and regulatory agencies, the report says, must equip themselves with the technological and scientific tools necessary to anticipate, recognize, and respond to new foodborne threats.
The report examines six categories of pathogens, ranging from those that have emerged in the U.S. over the past 50 years and are now well-established food safety concerns—such as E. coli O157:H7—to others that have recently appeared in other countries and, therefore, may pose a threat to Americans’ health in the future.
“It’s not enough to monitor for threats we already know exist, and to do so only in the most obvious places,” said Sandra Eskin, director of Pew’s safe food project. “Ensuring the safety of the food we eat means being vigilant along every step of the production and supply chain.”
The U.S. food system is a web of individual farmers, food processors, food distributors, retailers, restaurants, and consumers. Hazards may enter the food supply at any point in the farm-to-fork continuum, and there are often multiple pathways that can lead to human exposure. To mitigate these risks, the report includes recommendations in four categories for ensuring an effective, all-encompassing approach to U.S. meat and poultry oversight:
- Prediction: Support efforts to understand what factors lead to the emergence of new pathogens, and how the government and stakeholders have responded to such pathogens in the past; this will provide valuable insights for predicting and mitigating the risk of future disease emergence.
- Detection: Build surveillance systems and diagnostic tools that are able to detect emerging pathogens early and that can reliably distinguish them from other microbes that do not pose a public health risk.
- Capacity building: Develop agile regulatory approaches, tools and infrastructure to foster quick responses in the face of uncertainty. This includes building necessary relationships before a new outbreak occurs, so that stakeholders can collaborate quickly and efficiently, along with improving coordination of emerging disease preparedness efforts among local, state, federal, and international partners.
- Leadership and oversight: Determine where responsibility lies for the oversight of emerging disease preparedness activities, and how such efforts will be evaluated.
“A fundamental challenge of food safety oversight is that regulators and food producers typically do not know how and when new, dangerous foodborne pathogens will develop,” Eskin said. “Scientific, prevention-based measures are critical to addressing new hazards head-on.”
The Pew Charitable Trusts is driven by the power of knowledge to solve today’s most challenging problems. Learn more at www.pewtrusts.org.
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