WASHINGTON — Every year, 48 million Americans, or one out of every six people, contracts a foodborne illness. Those numbers have been declining over the course of recent years, but there is still work to do.

On Monday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, the federal agency whose 6,000 inspectors work every day to ensure the safety of meat, poultry and egg products, is announcing a new, common-sense measure that will greatly improve our ability to trace cases of foodborne illness to their source.

The measure, which will require retailers to keep detailed records of the materials they use to make ground beef, was prompted in large part by events in Portland.

Some of you remember the 2011 salmonella outbreak that resulted in several illnesses in Maine and parts of the Northeastern region of the United States. The Food Safety and Inspection Service was able to trace the illnesses to Hannaford, a supermarket that, like many retailers, had used cuts of meat from various sources to make ground beef.

While the Food Safety and Inspection Service was able to trace the illnesses back to the supermarket that sold it, a lack of information about the source of the materials used to make the ground beef prevented us from going back further to the establishment that produced them. Doing so would have enabled us to ensure that the same unsafe meat was not being used by other retailers in the area.

This outbreak got the attention of Maine lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and then-U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, all of whom pushed for changes to the recordkeeping requirements.

We know that illnesses in that outbreak could have been prevented with better documentation from beef facilities and retail stores. By requiring better documentation in the future, public health officials will be able to quickly search records to identify the exact source of the meat in question during outbreak investigations. Moreover, we have tried to keep the cost for meeting this requirement low for small businesses.

The fact is, salmonella is a frustrating pathogen for public health officials. It sickens more than 1 million Americans every year and hides in nearly every food source you can imagine.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service has taken an “all hands on deck” approach to minimizing this problem. The steps we are taking range from requiring more microbial testing by plants to improving our lab methods, rearranging our inspector workforce inside poultry plants and improving food inspector training.

Just last week, we issued a new best practices guide to help the poultry industry better manage salmonella in its facilities. Some of the steps, like the one we are announcing Monday, rely less on science and more on common sense and experience to overcome known food safety hurdles.

Over the past six years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has collaborated extensively with other federal partners to safeguard America’s food supply, prevent foodborne illness and improve consumers’ knowledge about the food they eat.

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service is working to strengthen federal food safety efforts and develop strategies that emphasize a three-dimensional approach to prevent foodborne illness: prioritizing prevention; strengthening surveillance and enforcement; and improving response and recovery.

Other steps the Food Safety and Inspection Service has taken to improve the safety of ground beef specifically include:

 Adopting a zero-tolerance policy for raw beef products containing six additional strains of shiga-toxin producing E. coli.

Expanding testing procedures for additional components of ground beef.

Improving employee training to detect and reduce E. coli O57:H7 contamination on beef carcasses.

When it comes to foodborne illness, we have to be able to identify the source of the problem in order to address it, and this new policy helps us do just that.

Going into this holiday season, the people of Maine and millions of Americans around the country can be assured that sound policy and the Food Safety and Inspection Service’s team of dedicated public servants are working to ensure that your families’ meals, and ours, are safe and wholesome to enjoy.

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