FDA claims progress on food protection plan

Jul 2, 2008 (CIDRAP News) – The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today released a 6-month status report on its progress in implementing a food safety plan launched in November in response to high-profile contamination incidents involving domestic and imported foods over the past few years.

The 8-page report, available on the FDA's Web site, covers a wide range of action items, from efforts to solicit stakeholder comments to research on how to assess produce contamination risks. Progress assessments are grouped under prevention, intervention, and response sections. In each category the FDA also lists steps it plans in the future.

The status report comes as the FDA is fielding criticism over its handling of the investigation of a massive Salmonella outbreak thought to be linked to fresh tomatoes or some other ingredient commonly served in combination with tomatoes.

Some lawmakers have charged that the FDA has been too slow in implementing the food safety plan. For their part, FDA officials have said Congress has failed to grant the FDA authorities it has requested in the plan, such as the ability to require food recalls.

"Implementing the strategic approaches outlined in the plan is essential if we are to enhance our ability to respond and intervene in foodborne outbreaks," said FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach, MD, in a press release today. "But there is much more that needs to be done. We are hopeful that Congress will support these efforts by providing the proposed new authorities that we requested in the Food Protection Plan."

Prevention plans move forward
The FDA said it is working with state and local partners to develop a strategy for implementing the food safety plan and that a 50-state meeting will be held in St Louis from Aug 12 to 14 to collaborate and plan future food safety initiatives.

Also, the FDA is seeking feedback on a variety of food safety proposals, including outreach activities and pet-food labeling and safety standards.

In 2007, the FDA launched a Tomato Safety Initiative to explore problems associated with Salmonella contamination in tomatoes. The agency said it has completed its review of growing areas in Virginia and central Florida and is now analyzing the information so that it can report its findings.

Other prevention areas the FDA plans to address include modifying food safety guidelines for leafy greens and melons, updating Good Agricultural Practices, issuing a final rule on Salmonella enteritidis contamination of shell eggs, and modernizing Good Manufacturing Practices for human food.

"There have been changes in both the food industry and in the science of food safety that indicate a need for modernization," the report says.

The agency said it has made progress with China and Vietnam on food and import safety issues and has also reached out to India and Jordan. It has also met with a host of other countries on rapid response and other food safety issues.

When the FDA released its food protection plan in November, it emphasized that the strategy reflects a risk-based approach to improving safety. The new report says the FDA has established a risk-based steering committee to ensure that the plan adheres to that approach.

Among technical accomplishments, the FDA said it has developed an assay to gauge the stability of two bioterrorism agents in high-risk foods and has published a study on the microbiological load of bagged, ready-to-eat produce.

Intervention initiatives
The FDA said it has beefed up inspections at a facility that produces low-acid canned foods (LACF), because of concerns about botulism. The measure resulted in a recall after inspectors found viable Clostridium botulinum spores. In view of the findings, the agency said it is considering targeting more LACF facilities..

Based on President Bush's proposed 2009 budget, the FDA said it would conduct 327 more state contract food inspections than were completed this year and that its regulatory affairs office will conduct an additional 20,000 food import field exams.

The agency plans to hire and train at least 161 new full-time food inspectors. Also, it is seeking feedback on a plan to allow third-party certification programs to ensure that imported food meets FDA requirements.

On the technical front, the FDA said it has developed a rapid detection system, using flow cytometry, to identify Escherichia coli and Salmonella in food and that the system is already being used in poultry processing facilities. FDA microbiologists trained at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Salmonella reference laboratory on a new molecular method, purchased for many of the FDA's labs, for rapidly identifying Salmonella strains.

Ramping up response capacity
Acknowledging that better trace-back capabilities are needed to speed responses to foodborne illness outbreaks, the FDA said it has initiated discussions with industry and other stakeholders on current traceability models and how to identify beset practices for the process.

Yesterday during the FDA's update on the Salmonella outbreak investigation, David Acheson, MD, associate commissioner for foods, said many producers and distributors still use paper records, which have slowed the trace-back investigation. He told reporters that electronic records would enhance traceability.

The agency has conducted "incident command system" training courses and has developed a farm investigation course, which was held in February, for federal, state, and international investigators.

Also, the FDA has asked states to apply for funding to establish rapid response teams. Six states will receive cooperative agreements for this purpose in 2008, and three more will receive them in the 2009 fiscal year.

See also:

Jul 2 FDA press release

FDA food protection plan 6-month summary

Nov 6, 2007, CIDRAP News story "US food safety plan calls for mandatory recall power"

Jul 1 CIDRAP News story "FDA requests backup in hunt for Salmonella source"

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