Tie food safety standards to public health goals, IOM urges

Apr 24, 2003 (CIDRAP News) – It's time to link science-based food safety standards with specific public health goals, says a report released today by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council of the National Academies.

The 342-page report recommends the development of a national plan to integrate information on the prevalence of foodborne pathogens with data on the incidence of foodborne disease, according to a National Academies news release.

The report stresses the need to use up-to-date scientific tools and methods to develop food safety standards, such as the allowable prevalence of Salmonella contamination in broiler chickens. Food safety criteria should be "based on sound science, developed in a transparent manner, and consistently applied," Cameron Hackney, PhD, co-chair of the committee that wrote the report, stated in the news release. Hackney is dean of Davis College of Agriculture, Forestry, and Consumer Sciences at West Virginia University in Morgantown.

Many of the food safety standards now in place "cannot be directly linked to specific public health outcomes," said Claude Earl Fox, also a committee co-chair, in a statement released at a National Academies briefing on the report today. "This makes it hard to identify the benefits that result from a particular performance standard" or to compare the benefits of various standards. Fox is a professor of public health at the Johns Hopkins urban Health Institute in Baltimore.

The committee recommends a more systematic, comprehensive program than now exists to track foodborne pathogens. "To provide a fuller picture of the prevalence of microorganisms associated with foodborne disease—and to identify optimal points for controlling them—periodic, systematic microbiological sampling should be carried out on foods commonly associated with foodborne illness at various points along the entire farm-to-table continuum," the news release states.

"Congress should allocate funds to build and maintain centralized databases to store this information," the statement adds. Further, "Congress should require the development of a national plan to integrate the information on pathogens that USDA [US Department of Agriculture] and FDA [Food and Drug Administration] gather through food sampling with public health agencies' surveillance data on foodborne pathogens."

The report's release came about a week after government agencies released separate reports that seemed to illustrate the need to correlate survey data on foodborne pathogens and on foodborne diseases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on the basis of surveillance in nine states, reported that the incidence of diagnosed Salmonella infections stayed roughly the same from 1996 through 2002. But the USDA reported that the prevalence of Salmonella in tested samples of raw meat and poultry declined fairly consistently from 1998, when new safety rules took effect, through 2002.

Fox said more comprehensive monitoring of foodborne pathogens would equip public health agencies to link specific illnesses with specific foods. "Knowing this, it will be possible to optimize interventions to control the hazards associated with each food and to confirm that specific interventions achieve their public health objectives once applied," he said.

Among some specific recommendations cited in the news release, the committee called for expanding or adding warning labels on some foods. For ground beef, labels should not just give safe handling tips, but should warn consumers of the potential harm from undercooking. Also, cheeses made from unpasteurized milk should have warning labels, and states should ban all sales of raw milk, which can currently be sold within states where it is produced, the committee says.

The report also urges the FDA to take steps to make imported produce and seafood safer. Rather than rely on random screening of a small percentage of seafood imports, the FDA should work to ensure that exporters apply safety measures before shipping their products to the United States. Likewise, firms that send produce to the United States should be expected to follow the same safety practices as domestic growers.

Fox said some current food safety regulations are outdated and the process for updating them is "burdensome." The committee contends that federal food safety agencies need more "administrative flexibility" to update antiquated regulations, he said. He added that the panel is proposing guidelines for developing science-based food safety criteria.

The report was sponsored by the USDA and FDA. In a statement released today, Elsa Murano, USDA undersecretary for food safety, said USDA agrees that food safety criteria must be science-based and linked to public health goals. She said most of the recommendations the report aims at the USDA are already being implemented.

See also:

National Academies news release

Report table of contents with links to chapters

USDA news release concerning report

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