WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said prevention and partnership will guide their departments' efforts to safeguard the food Americans eat every day.

Today's announcements are based on the public health principles embraced by the White House Food Safety Working Group led by Secretary Sebelius and Secretary Vilsack.

"Making prevention a priority is critical to reducing foodborne illness and one of the three food safety principles of President Obama's Food Safety Working Group," said Vilsack. "The actions we are taking today will result in safer food in our country, which means healthier children and less costly healthcare."

Agriculture Secretary Vilsack announced that USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) is issuing guidance for inspectors to begin conducting routine sampling of bench trim for E. coli. Bench trim is pieces left over from steaks and other cuts that are then used to make ground beef. FSIS will also be issuing streamlined, consolidated instructions to its personnel for inspection, sampling and other actions to reduce E. coli O157:H7 in beef.

Secretary Sebelius praised the three draft guidances prepared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), an agency within HHS, aimed at minimizing or eliminating contamination in leafy greens, tomatoes, and melons that can cause foodborne illnesses.

"These proposed controls provide a guide for growers and processors to follow so they may better protect their produce from becoming contaminated," Secretary Sebelius told a group of growers, transporters, retailers, consumers, food safety advocates, and others gathered at the Eastern Market, a public fresh-food market in Washington, D.C. "This strategy represents the kind of positive change promised by President Obama."

FSIS has not routinely tested bench trim, and today's announcement builds on previous measures FSIS has taken to ensure meat is safe. FSIS started E. coli O157:H7 testing with ground beef and has expanded testing to other beef components that are used in ground beef. FSIS' streamlined instructions to its personnel for inspection will mean inspectors now have a clear, simplified procedure to find and eliminate E. coli before it reaches consumers. E. coli O157:H7 is a potentially deadly bacterium that can cause bloody diarrhea, dehydration and in the most severe cases, kidney failure. The very young, seniors and persons with weak immune systems are the most susceptible to foodborne illness. In recent years, this bacterium has caused outbreaks associated with a variety of products, including ground beef and spinach.

HHS' draft guidances are the FDA's first step toward setting enforceable standards for produce safety. FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D. said the draft guidances represent a shift in strategy for the FDA, from a food safety system that often has been reactive to one that is based on preventing foodborne hazards

"These new food safety guidelines will facilitate the development of enforceable food safety standards and ensure a safer supply of fresh food for all Americans," said Commissioner Hamburg. "The three draft guidances are designed to help growers and others across the entire supply chain minimize or eliminate contamination in leafy greens, tomatoes, and melons that can cause foodborne illnesses."

"We must set as our highest priority the creating of enforceable standards for food safety that prevent the food Americans eat from ever becoming contaminated," she told those gathered at the Eastern Market in Washington, D.C.

Secretary Sebelius said that consumers play a vital role in ensuring the safety of the fresh produce they eat. She offered the following tips from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • Buy wisely. Don't buy produce that is bruised or damaged. When buying fresh cut produce, choose only items that are refrigerated or surrounded by ice.
  • Refrigerate promptly. Certain perishable fresh fruits and vegetables (e.g., strawberries, lettuce, herbs, and mushrooms) should be stored in a clean refrigerator at a temperature of 40 degrees F or below. If you aren't sure whether an item should be refrigerated, ask your grocer. Produce that is purchased pre-cut or peeled should be refrigerated within two hours.
  • Prepare produce with clean hands. Wash hands for 20 seconds with warm water and soap before and after preparing fresh produce.
  • Wash produce thoroughly. Rinse fruits and vegetables under running water. Scrub firm produce such as melons and cucumbers with a clean produce brush. All unpackaged fruits and vegetables, as well as those packaged and not marked pre-washed, should be thoroughly rinsed before eating. This includes produce grown conventionally or organically at home, or produce from a grocery store or farmer's market.
  • Do not cross-contaminate. Don't give bacteria the opportunity to spread from one food to another. Consider using one cutting board only for foods that will be cooked such as raw meat, and another one for ready-to-eat foods such as raw fruits and vegetables.
    For more information, see FDA Issues Draft Guidances for Tomatoes, Leafy Greens and Melons.

    To access the key findings and recommendations of the President's Food Safety Working Group along with more information about its activities, please visit www.foodsafetyworkinggroup.gov.