Delila R. Parham
Food Safety Inspection Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture
Delila Parham has a Bachelor of Science degree from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from The Ohio State University. Dr. Parham has spent most of her career as a federal employee with the Food Safety and Inspection Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. She has worked in several programs in the Agency, and currently serves as the chief of the Zoonoses Branch, Zoonotic Diseases and Residue Surveillance Division in the Office of Public Health Science.
The Food Safety Inspection Service is the public health regulatory agency in the USDA responsible for ensuring that the nation’s commercial supply of meat, poultry and egg products is safe. Its forerunner was the Bureau of Animal Industry formed in 1884 with the purpose of preventing diseased animals from being used as food. Meat inspection first began in 1890 at the urging of U.S. producers so their products would be able to meet foreign regulations and compete in foreign trade. Meat inspection gained momentum with the publication of the Upton Sinclair’s novel “The Jungle” in 1905 which exposed the brutal conditions in the Chicago meatpacking industry. It led to federal inspectors in meat packing plants.
With the rapid expansion of the poultry industry after World War II, inspection was established for dressed poultry. As time went on, inspection increasingly focused on wholesomeness and physical contamination. The problem of diseased animals entering the food chain decreased over the years. But at the same time, the complexity of the animal raising operations grew considerably, creating new kinds of problems. More recently, meat inspection became a national issue with the 1993 outbreak of E. Coli 0157:H7 in the Pacific Northwest that caused 400 illnesses and four deaths. (All of the deaths were children.) The public was outraged. As a result, a mandatory E. coli testing program was implemented for raw ground beef in 1994.
Many believed this outbreak occurred because in 1993, FSIS was using the same approach to meat inspection it was using in 1906. That system was based on sight, touch and smell. After this outbreak, FSIS began to focus on a science-based approach with special emphasis on microbiological hazards. The agency stepped up its research and implemented the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) approach in 1997. In addition to better surveillance, HACCP clarifies the roles of government and industry.
The program has been a big success and was cited by the Centers for Disease Control as being an important factor in an overall decline in bacterial food borne illnesses.
Even with this decline, many people fall victim to borne illnesses each year, resulting in 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths each year. The hospitalization costs alone are estimated to be over $3 billion per year. Researchers continue to raise concerns about emerging threats from microorganisms, chemicals and animal disease. While the kinds of animal-based foods we eat have changed as have the places where we eat them, one fact remains the same: Food safety begins on the farm. For farmers, the food safety concerns continue to be E. coli 0157:H7, Campylobacter and Salmonella. FSIS does not anticipate intervening on the farm, believing that voluntary and not regulatory approaches work best. The agency encourages use of the HACCP concepts on the farm, however. Exercising good food safety on the farm requires good record keeping, hygiene, and herd health management. As new threats occur, there must be more collaboration between government agencies, academia, industry and consumers.
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