FDA details year's progress on food protection plan

Dec 2, 2008 (CIDRAP News) – The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a report yesterday detailing the first year of accomplishments in implementing its Food Protection Plan, a road map the agency presented in November 2007 in response to a spate of contamination incidents involving domestic and imported food.

The 13-page report, which appears on the FDA's Web site, follows up on a 6-month progress report released in July. Yesterday's report includes the previous accomplishments, plus several more recent ones, such as opening food safety offices in China.

Release of the progress report comes on the heels of a recent critique from the Pew Charitable Trusts of the federal response to this year's nationwide Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak. The group said the outbreak, which sickened more than 1,400 people, exposed several gaps in the nation's food safety system, such as the lack of mandatory safety controls for fresh produce. FDA officials have faulted Congress for not giving the agency the authority it needs to establish such mandates.

Yesterday's report details steps in three main areas: prevention, intervention, and response. FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach said in a press release yesterday that cutting-edge technology has helped the agency accomplish some of its Food Protection Plan goals.

Von Eschenbach also commented on the extensive collaboration that has helped the FDA put the plan into practice. "Every day, the FDA is working with foreign countries, state and local governments, regulated industry, and consumer groups to ensure the safety of the food supply," he said.

Prevention measures
In the report, the FDA said much of its recent work on preventing safety problems has centered on getting other groups on board with its Food Protection Plan. For example, in August the FDA held a 50-state meeting in St Louis that gathered more than 200 partners to discuss food safety challenges and initiatives.

According to the report, the agency is soliciting stakeholder comments on a plan to improve industry standards for minimizing pathogens in fresh fruit and vegetables.

Also, the FDA said it has launched a host of tools for improving food safety. For example, the FDA has hosted Web seminars to train food industry workers on how to use CARVER, a self-assessment tool for minimizing the risk of intentional contamination. (CARVER is an acronym that stands for criticality, accessibility, recuperability, vulnerability, effect, and recognizability.) The FDA has also translated the ALERT-based Web tool for food defense and preparedness into Spanish and translated other program material into French and Portuguese.

Following up on the ALERT initiative, the FDA and other federal partners launched a food-defense training kit for front-line employees in the food and agriculture industries.

In its ongoing tomato safety initiative, aimed at reducing Salmonella contamination, the FDA said it is planning to include an additional area, northern Florida, and is analyzing its findings from other Florida growing areas and Virginia to prepare a report for the industry and other stakeholders.

To address prevention efforts aimed at imported foods, the FDA said it has hired staff for its offices in China and India and has drafted its first 12-month work plan for the China office. The agency also sponsored a food defense research symposium for Middle Eastern countries.

Other prevention accomplishments have included approving the use of irradiation to control pathogens in lettuce and spinach, sponsoring discussions on rapid detection technologies, and developing methods to detect melamine and cyanuric acid in feed ingredients, antibiotics in distiller's grains, and prohibited proteins in animal feed. The FDA also said it developed a method to detect multidrug-resistant Salmonella in seafood.

Intervention achievements
The FDA said it inspected 5,930 high-risk food establishments during the 2008 fiscal year and piloted an inspection program for high-risk firms in Denver and Minneapolis during the Democratic and Republican national conventions.

According to the report, the FDA has formed a steering committee to transition a data mining technology tool for screening imported food—the Predictive Risk-based Evaluation for Dynamic Import Compliance Targeting (PREDICT) system—from the pilot phase to agency-wide use.

To boost laboratory capacity, the FDA reported it is using a high-throughput facility in Denver to test food and enhance data quality and has awarded cooperative agreements to all Food Emergency Response Network (FERN) laboratories to upgrade facilities, conduct training on new testing methods, or increase sample analysis capacity.

To improve adverse-event reporting, the FDA said it has awarded a contract to develop a reportable food registry and has expanded its drug event database to include adverse feed incidents. The agency reported that it has enhanced its data-mining capabilities for adverse events.

Response steps
As a means of improving response to foodborne illness outbreaks, the FDA said it has expanded its geographic information system (GIS) capabilities to better manage emergency response resources.

The agency said it has taken several measures to speed state responses to foodborne illness outbreaks, such as sponsoring 10 incident command training sessions and working with localities to quickly search more than 2,100 Asian markets for baby formula and other milk products that could potentially be contaminated with melamine.

To enhance traceability of potentially contaminated food, the FDA said it is working with industry and other stakeholders to determine the best practices for product tracing and has announced two public meetings to address the issue.

In order to speed recall alerts, the FDA reported it is developing a searchable recall database that will allow it to more quickly get information from companies and professional associations.

Consumer and health advocates weigh in
Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America, based in Washington, DC, told CIDRAP News that the FDA has been very active over the past year and that it's useful to see a list of their accomplishments. However, he said the measures don't address the underlying need for food safety reforms and better performance standards for food producers. "These issues weren't in the Food Protection Plan from the beginning," he said.

Waldrop said some recent events might give the impression that the FDA is backtracking on food safety issues. For example, he said the agency was believed to be close to issuing a final rule on reducing Salmonella levels in shell eggs, but recently stepped back from it.

He also said FDA's new draft compliance guide on Listeria monocytogenes appears to weaken the government's zero-tolerance standard for the pathogen. "This is headed in the wrong direction," Waldrop said, adding that some other nations are pushing to weaken international Listeria standards. He said Canada's recent Listeria outbreak serves as a reminder of how lethal the pathogen can be, particularly in a cross-contamination setting such as a retail deli.

In a statement yesterday, Jeff Levi, PhD, executive director of Trust for America's Health (TFAH), a nonprofit health advocacy group based in Washington, DC, said commended the FDA for moving forward on key food safety initiatives, but he said the nation still lacks a real plan for food protection.

"America's food safety system has not been seriously upgraded in more than 100 years, and too many Americans get sick each year from preventable foodborne illnesses," Levi said. "The FDA should articulate to Congress and the American people what resources are needed over the long-term to achieve the goals and define milestones for how to measure success."

In April, TFAH released a report on gaps in the nation's food safety system, including what it described as obsolete laws, misallocated resources, and inconsistencies among the government agencies responsible for food safety.

See also:

Dec 1 FDA press release

Jul 2 CIDRAP News story "FDA claims progress on food protection plan"

Aug 26 CIDRAP News story "12 deaths reported in Canadian Listeria outbreak"

Apr 30 CIDRAP News story "Health group urges overhaul of US food safety system"

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