May 22, 2008 (CIDRAP News) A team of food safety researchers, flanked by federal, state, and industry officials, today unveiled a sweeping report on how food safety information is shared and called for new federal policies to make the system more transparent and useful.
The 129-page report, Harnessing Knowledge to Ensure Food Safety: Opportunities to Improve the Nation's Food Safety Information Infrastructure, was released at a briefing at George Washington University in Washington, DC, and is available on the group's Web site.
The study was produced by the Food Safety Research Consortium (FSRC), a group of university-based research institutions, based at the University of Florida in Gainesville, that is working on initiatives to improve the nation's food safety system. The group's projects include the development of analytical and decision tools to help guide interventions and resource allocation. The new report was funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
"For all actors in the food safety systempublic and privatethe effectiveness of what they do depends on the quality of the information they have on potential hazards and how to minimize them," the FSRC noted in the report's introduction. Authors of the report are Michael Taylor, professor of health policy at George Washington University, and Michael Batz, executive director of the FSRC and head of food safety programs at the University of Florida's Emerging Pathogens Institute in Gainesville.
Taylor and Batz based their evaluation of the nation's food safety information systems on the results of four workshops that were attended by public health and food safety experts, government officials, industry representatives, researchers, and consumers.
More effective communication between food safety groups is need to ensure safety and reduce risks, since food production and distribution over the past decades have become increasingly complex, the authors wrote. At the same time, technology for collecting, managing, and sharing data has also advanced and has the potential to improve food safety, they said.
However, Taylor and Batz wrote that much of the food safety information system is in "stove pipes" that are isolated and inaccessible to other users. They attribute the fragmentation to a variety of causes, including regulatory constraints, intellectual property concerns, and a variety of funding sources. They also found that food safety agencies are overburdened with competing priorities and responsibilities.
The report lists several examples of shortcomings in the food safety information system. It says that government and industry lack research plans on how to address contamination in produce and that planning for the FoodNet system, which collects foodborne illness data, has not involved food-industry risk managers.
If government agencies and the food industry could somehow pool their data on chemical and microbial contamination, "this data would provide a much more robust picture of the nature and distribution of hazards across the food supply than we have today," the authors wrote.
To support more information sharing, stakeholders need incentives and the federal government should take a lead role to establish policy changes, Taylor and Batz asserted.
"We believe that lasting solutions must respect these institutional realities and must include mechanisms that facilitate diverse institutions working together in new ways," they wrote.
Though some federal legislative proposals call for putting all federal food safety functions in one agency, the authors said their suggestions don't depend on that reform measure, because such unification wouldn't solve all of the information-sharing problems. "The need for improvement extends well beyond federal agencies," they wrote.
The report suggests establishing a food safety information system council, housed in the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), composed of senior food safety officials from key federal agencies and state and local departments. With a budget of $25 million the council would:
- Seek regular input from all food safety participants
- Prioritize, plan, and coordinate actions to improve the collection and flow of food safety information
- Identify legislative changes needed to ease the flow of information
- Assess the costs and benefits of proposed changes
- Report annually to Congress
In addition, the report calls for a food safety information system stakeholder forum that would advise the new council and help implement new initiatives such as:
- Launching a food safety epidemiology user group to ensure that data from publicly funded epidemiology efforts are accessible and timely
- Establishing a gateway Web site that could connect the network of food safety databases
- Compiling a database of past and future food safety research activities
- Analyzing information gaps
- Prioritizing information needs
- Increasing access to information from publicly funded food safety research
- Easing access to industry food safety information
Taylor and Batz concluded that though there are no quick cure-alls for improving the flow of food safety information, they are buoyed by stakeholders' high interest in removing some of the roadblocks.
Food Safety Research Consortium report on improving the nation's food safety information infrastructure