Ag official keeps food safety on the front burner

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While America’s food supply is safer than anywhere else in the world, 48 million people get sick from food-borne illnesses and 3,000 die, annually, many of them children, said Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, Under Secretary for Food Safety for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, USDA. She was at a White House Women’s Roundtable discussion on food safety held Sept. 15 at the Eastside Food Coop.

Participants lamented that “kids don’t get home ec” in school, which would teach them food safety, “but we do have an app for that,” Hagen said. The “Ask Karen” avatar m.AskKaren.gov is optimized for I-Phones and Droids, with about 1,600 frequently asked questions being updated all the time.

“I don’t Tweet, but my agency does,” Hagen said, “with several thousand followers. We get that we have to be pushing information out. The USDA has good information on websites if you know how to dig and find it, she said, but they are working on making it more accessible. They’re developing a portal specifically for clinical providers. Now, the best site is probably foodsafety.gov, she recommended.

Parent of a four year old and a six year old, Hagen said it would be a “unspeakable” to lose a child to “something you put on their plate to nourish them,” and that’s what keeps her passionate about her job. The USDA regulates meat and poultry from the slaughterhouse door to the start of shipping, and processed (non-shell) eggs. But Hagen said the department tries to influence what happens before food arrives there, and what consumers do with it at home.

She cited a recent Ad Council campaign in which they spent about $1 million to leverage what would have cost $40-$50 million in advertising placements for Food Safe Families. The message: “Clean. Separate. Cook. Chill.”

Hagen said the USDA gives away meat thermometers, “the most important tool you can have at a barbecue,” to make sure meat reaches a safe internal temperature.

Coming up, in January 2012, “single ingredient labeling” with nutritional values for meats, and soon, clearer labeling of products to which sodium solutions have been added.

The dozen or so women who attended, most of whom had jobs in the food/coop industry or as regulators, heard that the USDA is, like all of the Obama administration, now focused on jobs. “Small business drives America and is going to drive recovery,” Hagen said.

There were questions about whether small farmers are scrutinized as much as big producers…Hagen said it stands to reason that the larger the company, the more widespread the effect and publicity would be if there was a breach of food safety, but the regulations are the same.

Hagen said her boss, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, is all about bringing prosperity back to rural communities and the people in them, “a great place to raise kids.”

A little networking broke out when discussing food shelves, the quality of food they handle, and the number of hands it goes through; a city of Minneapolis health worker said her department offers trainings for food shelves in receiving foods.