North Carolina’s elected representatives and their constituents had tremendous influence in shaping the new federal Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) approved last year, from education efforts by growers and the Farm Bureau to the Hagan-Tester amendment co-sponsored by North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan, exempting small farms from some requirements under the act. But before the act even came to a vote, N.C. State Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences professor Dr. Lee-Ann Jaykus was among a select group of scientists reviewing various U.S. food safety programs.
Jaykus, a microbiologist, was a member of the Institute of Medicine-National Research Council’s Committee on the Review of the Food and Drug Administration’s Role in Ensuring Safe Food. The group released its findings in May 2010, as Congress was debating the FSMA. Though the act doesn’t address all the committee’s recommendations, Jaykus said the report clearly informed some of its core principles.
Enhancing Food Safety: The Role of the Food and Drug Administration was written by a 12-member panel of experts who came from universities, industry, and the public sector, and that included Jaykus. The group concluded that FDA needed to change its approach to food safety in order to better protect the nation’s food supply.
The report was commissioned by Congress and took two years to write, Jaykus said. So the FSMA legislation was being discussed on Capitol Hill, as the committee formulated its recommendations.
Examining the nation’s food safety system actually required more than a look at the FDA, Jaykus said. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is also involved in food safety, along with various state agencies, among others. In fact, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, which oversees about 20 percent of the U.S. food supply, receives 80 percent of federal food safety dollars, while FDA oversees around 80 percent of the food supply and receives much less federal funding for food safety, she said.
One of the committee’s major recommendations was for FDA to adopt a more risk-based approach to decision making regarding food safety. Currently, FDA’s approach is more reactive — responding in the event of an outbreak or incident of contamination.
A risk-based approach to food safety requires regulators and inspectors to systematically identify risks in the food system, prioritize them for action, and then determine the appropriate control strategies based on risk assessment and additional analytical techniques that take into account stakeholder needs and other important decision criteria. “There’s no way that all food safety issues can be addressed at the same time, so a risk-based approach allows regulators to address the most pressing needs first,” Jaykus said.
Implementing a risk-based approach to food safety will require data to drive decision making, so the committee also recommended developing a national food safety database. The database would include disease surveillance data, inspection findings, and behavioral , economic and food production information. Yet, the report found that sharing data among government agencies is sometimes difficult and recommended that FDA work with other federal food safety agencies to improve data sharing capabilities.
Communicating risk to consumers is also important. Consumers need to understand the relative degrees of food safety risk, and the true nature of the risk, Jaykus said. She went on to add that the risk-based approach should promote transparency in FDA decision-making which will in turn improve the agency’s credibility with stakeholders.
There were many other aspects to the report, such as the need for strategic planning across all FDA functions and an increase in the food inspection force. Though consumers can have confidence in the safety of the U.S.’s food supply, the committee had concerns related to the safety of fresh produce and the large quantities of food the U.S. now imports from around the world, for which FDA currently has insufficient inspectional resources. This is one of the issues that is addressed in the new food safety legislation.
In spring of 2009, Jaykus also participated in a food safety colloquium sponsored by the American Society for Microbiology that developed a report, Global Food Safety: Keeping Food Safe from Farm to Fork. The group of 24 professionals was divided into three groups, answered questions related to food safety and reconvened to write its report.
That report also focused on risks associated with an increasingly global food supply. For instance, Jaykus said that the dissolution of borders that comes as a consequence of large-scale global food trade has brought about food safety issues that were completely unanticipated just two decades ago. “Our aging population – with weaker immune systems – is at greater risk for food-borne illness. And our younger generation has less exposure to safe food handling practices,” she said.
Jaykus reiterated that Universities have an important role to play in educating the public and industry, and working with federal food safety agencies. “Because of societal changes, many people don’t really know where our food comes from and who is involved in food production,” she said. “It is our role to make sure that we spread the word.” — Natalie Hampton