Dr. Elisabeth Hagen is the former Under Secretary for Food Safety at USDA. She oversees policies and programs at the Food Safety and Inspection Service. Prior to her appointment as Under Secretary in August 2010, she served as USDA’s Chief Medical Officer, advising on a range of issues such as food safety, nutrition, and zoonotic diseases.
To me, there is no more fundamental function of government than to keep its people safe from harm. At the U.S. Department of Agriculture, my job in the Office of Food Safety is to protect the health of more than 300 million Americans through a strong food safety system. I have been personally charged by Secretary Vilsack to look at every possible way to reduce foodborne illness and I am looking forward to working with all of you in executing this critical mission.
Prevention has to be the foundation of everything we do. With that as a foundation, we need to activate the most powerful tools at our disposal, including quality data. We also need to engage and involve people because they are the reason all of this matters.
USDA is committed to a proactive approach to food safety. We are building on the tools we have, and identifying additional ones we need to protect consumers. This includes quick, accurate information around recalls and outbreaks. It also means educating consumers about safe food handling.
People hear stories of foodborne illness, and the next question is always “What can I do? What steps can I do to decrease the risk for my family?” As a mom, I’m always looking for information that will empower me to keep my kids healthy, safe, and happy. When I was in private practice, my patients were always seeking similar information about steps they could take to reduce the risk of preventable diseases. USDA’s food safety education programs, hotlines, online databases, and consumer outreach materials are all aimed at helping consumers handle and prepare food safely. Last year we reached more than 4 million consumers with our safe handling and public health messages, through traditional and new media.
We have a terrific opportunity to reach many more Americans on the topic of safe food handling and good health through a new partnership with the Ad Council. Through the partnership, we will produce a multi-media, bilingual, national public service ad campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of foodborne illnesses and to get people to consistently practice safe food handling at home. We are working with many of you on this Ad Council campaign and I’m very hopeful it will be a great success through your efforts to connect with consumers: where they live, work, and where they shop for food.
A foodborne illness can cause irreparable harm. The impact of a serious foodborne illness is felt beyond its immediate impact in terms of higher health care costs and lost wages. As a medical doctor, I’ve seen the impact of foodborne illness first-hand. I’m reminded of it every time I sit across the table from someone who lost their son or daughter to E. coli O157:H7.
A single pathogen can leave a lot of damage in its wake. The cost of foodborne illness is just too high—especially when you consider that it is preventable. I look forward to working with you as a partner in doing everything we can, together, to prevent foodborne illness.