In the wake of several large-scale foodborne illness outbreaks, Washington again searches for ways to enhance or reform the food safety system
The safety of the nation's food supply has remained static over the past three years, suggesting that after decades of improvement, an overhaul might be in order, said a report released this month by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta.
In 2008, 16 of every 100,000 people in the United States contracted laboratory-confirmed cases of salmonella poisoning, or about 48,000 serious illnesses. By contrast, in 2005 there were 42,000 confirmed salmonella cases. In total, roughly 76 million people in the United States suffer foodborne illnesses each year, 300,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 die, the CDC estimates.
Contaminated food is still the exception and not the rule in the U.S., but large, widespread illnesses — such as the salmonella outbreak linked first to tomatoes, and then to imported jalapenos during the summer of 2008, or this winter's salmonella outbreak linked to peanut products — seem to have become a quarterly occurrence.
As we approach President Obama's 100th day in office, despite ongoing wars, a troubled economy and other major priorities, food safety reform has remained in the legislative spotlight, with lawmakers, consumer advocacy groups and food industry executives calling for increased funding for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, a new look at preventative food safety measures, or, in some cases, an overhaul of the current system.
“Our approach here has been for about 10 years on the prevention end of the spectrum and we began with the regulatory approach called [Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points],” explained Kenneth Petersen, assistant administrator, office of field operations, Food Safety and Inspection Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington.
“Going back about 10 years, there has been a decrease in the human infection rates. However, in the last two or three years, [those declines have] kind of leveled off a little bit and that's one of the reasons we're looking to better predict. We've gotten some good mileage out of HACCP. I think it's time to crank things up a little bit to see if we can't better predict using new approaches to data to continue to drive those human illness rates down.”
Jennifer Hatcher, group vice president of government relations, Food Marketing Institute, Arlington, Va., agreed that the occurrence of outbreaks does renew concerns about food safety, and impels a reexamination of the current safety system.
“Over the years, food safety concerns have been raised as the result of various ‘trigger’ events,” Hatcher said.
“Everything from contaminated hamburgers to mad cow disease, intentional anthrax scares, the potential for avian influenza and food recalls have all brought attention to the importance of food safety and resulted in many reforms. Our food safety system is constantly undergoing scrutiny, and, as a result, it continues to improve.
“But we also realize that each new event highlights areas that need improvement and we must respond to these.”
To make sure food safety policies are being enforced and to improve communications among federal agencies, Obama has formed a new Food Safety Working Group.
“President Obama is strongly committed to strengthening our national food safety system and has established the White House Food Safety Working Group to examine ways we can reform the system,” said Michael Herndon, spokesman for the FDA in Washington.
“We look forward to working with Congress and the rest of the federal government to get reforms moving as fast we can.”
Petersen agreed that the Obama administration, like prior administrations, has set food safety as a high priority. The primary difference with previous administrations, so far, is the new working group, which Petersen described as a welcome addition that would “hold us to task and make sure we're attentive.”
“This is really my third administration that I've worked with, going back to the Clinton era, and I have not seen any administration that didn't take food safety quite seriously,” Petersen said. “I'm in a variety of closed-door discussions and every single one, when we talk about protecting the public and making the hard decisions, I've seen each of those administrations consider it important and consider it something that they wanted to make sure that we're doing everything we can.
“So, at the top, there's this new governmental group taking a look at that and we welcome that. So, in that respect, that's kind of a new feature, but in recent memory that I've been involved with, they've all been quite attentive to people getting sick, making sure that America's food supply stays the safest.”
Hatcher said that FMI is also looking forward to working with the Food Safety Working Group, and she praised the administration's selection of Margaret Hamburg and Joshua Sharfstein, both public health experts, for the posts of FDA commissioner and principal deputy commissioner, respectively.
“We are very encouraged with the addition of both Dr. Hamburg and Dr. Sharfstein to the FDA and look forward to working with them,” Hatcher said.
“We are equally excited about President Obama's announcement regarding the creation of a White House Working Group to look at ways to improve coordination between the FDA and USDA and better utilize resources. We would encourage the new commissioner to ensure that food safety receives a high priority and to establish a clear line of authority for food responsibilities.
“In addition, the FDA should use the Food Protection Plan to lay out a new strategy for prevention, intervention and response, and build stronger public-private partnerships such as the recognition of accredited third-party certification programs.”
NO QUICK FIX
Because the current food safety system currently relies on a dozen or so federal agencies, a debate has surfaced in Washington about whether to focus on improving food oversight at the FDA, or to focus on creating one new food safety agency that would combine the inspection and safety duties which are now split between the USDA and FDA.
“I think it's safe to say that we clearly have some problems with our food safety system and that improving the system should be of importance to everyone involved,” said Christie Pare, food safety manager at United Supermarkets, Lubbock, Texas.
Marion Nestle, a professor in the department of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University and author of “Food Politics” and “Safe Food,” among other books, said she is in favor of a single agency.
“I have long been in favor of a single food safety agency,” Nestle told SN. “Nothing else makes sense. But while waiting for the politicos to do that, and I hope I live that long, let's at least fix the FDA. The FDA has three problems that need immediate attention: money, people and legal authority. Without them — and Congress is the source of all — the problems can't be fixed.”
Trudy Bialic, spokeswoman for PCC Natural Markets, Seattle, agreed.
“We support consolidating the food safety regulation under one authority because right now, the U.S. is the only industrialized nation to have responsibilities between two agencies, the USDA and the FDA, and it makes sense to have it under one,” Bialic told SN.
“It also makes sense to have it under [The U.S. Department of] Health and Human Services. The FDA is so overloaded with drug responsibilities and medical devices, so that makes sense to keep drugs and medical devices separate from food. And, USDA also has a lot of marketing responsibilities, so to market and also regulate almost seems to be a conflict of interest.”
In the wake of recent outbreaks and imported food contamination scandals, many food safety experts and consumer advocacy groups have argued that the FDA's food inspection arm lacks adequate funding. However, Herndon of the FDA told SN that the FDA recently received additional funding, which will help the agency conduct more inspections and enhance surveillance activities.
“We are undertaking a hiring surge to support and improve the effectiveness of our inspection force around the country,” Herndon told SN, adding that FDA hired about 135 food investigators in fiscal year 2008 and plans to hire another 250 in fiscal year 2009. In fiscal year 2008, FDA conducted 6,562 domestic and 152 foreign food inspections. FDA estimates it will conduct about 7,260 domestic and 200 foreign food inspections in fiscal year 2009.
“These inspection counts do not include food inspections conducted by the states under contract (8,777) or partnership (786) for FDA in fiscal year 2008,” he said.
Prediction and prevention are key to any food safety strategy, industry experts agreed.
“What we want to be better at is more predictive in the risks in food and more predictive of the plants that may be trending out of control,” said Petersen of USDA FSIS. “Are there clues in my inspection activities, are there clues in the industry testing that they do, are there clues in their HACCP plans — the food safety prevention plans that we can do a better job of tracking those data and getting indications of a plant that may be trending out of control before unsafe food really goes out the door? And that, for us, is a rather sweeping new data integration approach that we'll be rolling out late next summer.
“We're getting a lot of work on our public health info system. Today, we're in the plants every day, we're finding things, we're reacting to things, but I want to be a little more forward-leaning on the prediction end of the spectrum.”
Funding for inspection teams has been a bigger concern for the FDA, but Hatcher said that increased funding is not the only factor to consider when working toward improved food safety.
“We acknowledge that FDA is woefully underfunded as it relates to its food safety responsibilities, and we support efforts to increase its funding because food safety is a public benefit, but increased funding will not in itself improve food safety,” Hatcher said.
“A more effective food safety system needs to be designed based on prevention and minimizing risk in the global food supply chain to ensure that we are maximizing the value of every dollar spent on food safety. Under the current system that is based predominately on inspections and intervention after a problem has already occurred, we don't believe that even a significant increase in funding will have a real impact. Resources should be allocated according to risk, and there needs to be better coordination among all the agencies responsible for food safety.”
Improved traceability and ramped up import inspection policies could help resolve some critical food safety issues, Hatcher added, but Congress needs to require food importers to police their foreign suppliers.
“Congress should provide for the building of capacity by foreign governments to regulate food safety and to require every food importer to oversee their foreign suppliers.”
Bialic of PCC agreed that prevention is where government efforts should be focused.
“Most of the [current legislative] bills talk about traceability and tightening up inspections, and those are all good things because with traceability you have more accountability, but that's after the fact. What we would like to see is more preventive thinking, addressing the actual causes of contamination and disease before they occur,” Bialic told SN.
“Only about 1% of the imported foods are being inspected and we think that's an error. There should be much broader food inspections of imported foods. We'd like to know what pesticides [have been used, and whether products have] residues on them, are they considered legal in this country or not, because we do know that compounds considered illegal here are being applied on crops overseas. But with 1% of imported foods being inspected, that's a big hole.”
LINES OF COMMUNICATION
Whatever steps are taken toward enhancing the national food safety system, experts agreed that coordination among agencies needs improvement.
While seamless communications enhance traceability and keep all parties of the food supply chain informed, many industry experts stressed how retailers can do their part to enhance food safety simply by maintaining communications with suppliers.
Publix Super Markets, for example, independently audits its suppliers and its retail operations as well, said Maria Brous, spokeswoman for Lakeland, Fla.-based retailer.
“We have a corporate quality assurance department dedicated to food safety,” she said, adding that maintaining good working relationships with the FDA, USDA, health inspectors and state officials is an important aspect of staying connected to the changes in the industry and government.
“We take recalls very seriously and work with all of our suppliers and experts to take the most precautions necessary. In addition, we train all of our managers on food safety and have them Super Safe Mark-certified.”
FMI's Super Safe Mark program has trained and registered more than 100,000 food handlers, according to Hatcher.
FMI has also launched the Product Recall Portal, which will eventually provide a secure and automated online alert system that will allow suppliers to send information to retailers and wholesalers rapidly and accurately in a standardized form 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Retailers and wholesalers will be able to receive relevant and vital information the moment it is available, allowing them to take immediate action and remove recalled product from the distribution chain and retail shelves as quickly as possible, Hatcher said.
Leslie G. Sarasin, president and chief executive officer, FMI, said that working together allows for the food industry to address problems as one.
“We are working not only with our retail and wholesale members, but also in collaboration with other associations, so that we can to a large extent speak as one industry to address the things we think are vital to food safety going forward,” Sarasin said.
Petersen of the USDA FSIS said he believes that the interaction with other food safety partners, state level programs, and the FDA and CDC has changed over the past five years to become more organized.
“Obviously, we have a long ways to go, but regulatory relationships, food safety testing, and sharing food safety data among agencies is much better than it was five years ago,” Petersen said.
There still is and always will be room for improvement, though.
“Food safety is not a static topic — if you're standing still, then you're falling behind,” Petersen said.