At last month’s Food Safety Summit, more than 1,500 industry professionals — ranging from processors, retailers, distributors, foodservice operators, regulators and academia — convened at the Baltimore Convention Center to discuss and gain insight on food safety best practices.
The emphasis on a partnership in food safety was one of the most talked about topics at the conference, with a full day forum on opening day covering the idea of building an Integrated Food Safety System (or IFSS).
In short, an IFSS is when public health and regulatory partners work collaboratively across all jurisdictions — local, state and federal — to detect, investigate, respond to and prevent foodborne illnesses.
The main idea behind it? Safer food. Prevention is the number one priority.
Joseph Corby, executive director of AFDO, said this sort of partnership is an obvious solution to creating a safe food supply, although it’s not necessarily a new concept.
“Those of us in the food safety regulatory groups know that we’re stronger and better by working together,” Corby said. “The food system is too dispersed and there’s just too much to do alone.”
However, while it may be an obvious answer for the agencies, what does the food industry and its consumers say about the collaboration?
In free-market societies, the ultimate responsibility for investing the resources that are necessary for implementing appropriate controls lies with the food industry.
Representing the food industry, Jennifer McEntire, Ph.D., Vice President, Science Operations, Grocery Manufacturers Association, discussed the industry’s hopes and concerns relative to this national effort and integration.
“We all want safe food,” McEntire said, “but the question is how do we get there.”
McEntire said the biggest challenge in creating safe food is that companies don’t always know if something isn’t right. It’s not always communicated back to them if they’re not doing the right thing.
The industry is currently challenged by inspection disparity. When an inspector comes to visit, it can sometimes be difficult to figure out if it is a federal or state/local visit. Which hat is the inspector wearing, or in other words — under which authority is the inspector operating under?
It can all be very confusing!
Also see: What's Really in Your Food? Spectroscopy & Chromatography Help Ensure That Food is Fit to Eat
State inspector shows up at a food facility to do a walk through:
- Is this a state or FDA inspection?
- Which criteria are followed?
- Do you use the FDA Form 483 or state form?
- Meaning of “bad” language: observation, critical, violation, major, minor, etc.
- What is the documentation? What does the FDA get? What is FOIAable?
- Response: how to bring to closure?
McEntire said other industry challenges include: selecting the FDA district that is the best fit for recalls, knowing where to go for information (state vs. federal) and the confusion of why the FDA’s recalling firm is the headquarters but the FSIS recalling firm is the facility.
The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) presents a wide-array of challenges in itself, including:
- Centralized inspections (also called corporate systems-based inspections or two-phased inspections)
- Appeals/escalation process for resolving disputes about FDA inspection decisions
- FDA will need to implement a new inspection paradigm that is systems-based
- Food safety culture
- How there should be a process to appeal findings from inspectors
“So yes, we want integration,” McEntire said. “Industry has hardly been involved in the regulatory integration process, but the effect of integrating (or not) impacts us!”
GMA requests consistency among the state, local, tribal, territorial and federal inspectors and an effective and transparent process through communication, inspection and appeals.
McEntire said that by having the conversation, we are moving forward — together — toward an integrated food safety system.
Do consumers agree?
“Today, we talk to our kids about stranger danger and internet safety,” Darin Detwiler said. “But somehow when it comes to food, we have this sense of ‘It’s gotta be fine.’ We trust too easily.”
Darin Detwiler is adjunct faculty at Northeastern University, where he teaches regulatory affairs of food. He is also the Senior Policy Coordinator at STOP Foodborne Illness.
Detwiler lost his son Riley in the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak. Since that outbreak, Detwiler has been a huge advocate for a safer food system, pushing for solutions through various roles.
“There’s a lot of assumptions with consumers,” Detwiler said. “Consumers think food is of best quality and that food will not come with a side of fear.”
But unfortunately, it did for Detwiler and his family.
Americans, specifically, are notorious for taking things for granted in life. A simplicity like food, for example, isn’t something you think could come with consequences. But it certainly can and does.
Detwiler said the worst thing about his son contracting E. coli was that he didn’t even eat the hamburger that killed him, as the investigation later revealed that he had contracted the pathogen from another child in his daycare who had eaten a contaminated hamburger.
It wasn’t until after the tragedy that Detwiler really started advocating for transparency and ways to provide a safer food supply.
He began corresponding with Former President Bill Clinton and Former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy about the need for change.
“It amazes me how we have the power of being a consumer, and yet we just kind of hand over food safety to someone and think ‘I’ll probably be alright,’ even though the conditions look questionable,” Detwiler said.
As many of us have probably experienced, Detwiler said he was once at a restaurant and saw the employee pressing his pizza dough with unwashed hands after handling the cashier register and taking phone calls.
After speaking up about his concern, the employee responded with: “Dude, believe me I know what I’m doing. Any s*** that may be on my hands and gets transferred to your food will be cooked off by the time it goes through the oven anyway.”
Detwiler believes various stakeholders from the farm to the fork can take measures to reduce the risks of foodborne illness.
“What’s the state of food safety education in schools? Zero! Why?” Detwiler questioned.
FSMA does provide (even to consumers) a hope that we can actually reduce the risk of foodborne illness, Detwiler said.
“We can make a difference before it’s too late,” he said.