One of the things I started to do when I became Under Secretary for Food Safety at USDA was to hold town hall meetings with Food Safety and Inspection Service field staff and Administrator Al Almanza. This week I had the pleasure of holding such a meeting with our headquarters staff in Washington.
I began the town hall meeting by asking a question: How many people in this country get sick every year from the food they eat? The answer is 48 million people – 1 in every 6 people. Of those, 128,000 will be hospitalized and 3,000 will die from something as basic as the food they eat. That’s a major public health issue, and the work we do is all about bringing those numbers down.
As the public health regulatory agency within USDA, our reach spans the globe. In fact, most of the nearly 10,000 employees who work for us are scattered throughout the country, working in slaughterhouses, processing facilities, laboratories, or conducting surveillance. Each job is critical to public health. Through their inspection, testing or surveillance duties, our staff make sure America’s meat, poultry and processed egg products are safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled.
My team and I are also working to make FSIS a 21st century public health agency focused on prevention of foodborne illness. As we do so, getting input from our field personnel, from the people who carry out our policies, is so important. And although they may not be doing inspections at the plants around the country, the food safety staff in Washington are nonetheless critical to ensuring that the food parents put on their tables is safe.
This is what our people do every day. Whether inspecting on the line, computer programming, running samples at a lab, helping to develop policy, or educating consumers, we all share a common mission to protect the public from foodborne illness. President Obama, Secretary Vilsack, I and everyone at FSIS are committed to this mission every day.