Funding gap stalls food safety centers of excellence

Mar 13, 2012 (CIDRAP News) – Federal funding shortfalls have stalled the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC's) progress on establishing five centers of excellence that were included in the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), according to sources involved in setting criteria for the new centers.

One of the goals of the FSMA is to enhance foodborne illness surveillance systems and leadership in outbreak investigations, and the CDC has several responsibilities in implementing the new law, one of which is establishing five Food Safety Integrated Centers of Excellence. According to CDC background information, the centers would serve as resources to respond to foodborne illness outbreaks.

Craig Hedberg, PhD, a food safety expert at the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health, told CIDRAP News that the CDC had appointed an independent working group to help the agency establish the criteria for evaluating the centers in advance of announcing a funding opportunity. However, the CDC recently told the working group in a memo that after reviewing its fiscal year 2012 budget, it is unable to fund the centers until enough targeted funding for them is available.

The agency's memo said that a slight increase in food safety funding will help address urgent food safety priorities, but it isn't enough to fund the five centers, which the working group estimated would cost about $2.75 million.

Hedberg said the goal of the centers of excellence is to create partnerships with health departments and schools of public health to leverage resources to improve foodborne illness outbreak surveillance and investigations. He added that the centers would create unique opportunities to conduct applied public-health research in outbreak settings and help define best practices that can be shared with other states and jurisdictions.

He said postponing establishment of the centers isn't surprising given federal budget constraints, but the CDC's decision is still disappointing. "What these centers represent is tremendously important. Nothing else like this exists," he said. "This is potentially a great lost opportunity."

The original push for the centers of excellence came from Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who had proposed them as an element of standalone legislation, he said. During a May 2009 news conference in the wake of Salmonella outbreaks linked to hot peppers and peanut butter, Klobuchar announced the proposed legislation, hailing the close partnerships among the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, the Minnesota Department of Health, and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture that helped provide key breakthroughs in the investigations.

Klobuchar's legislation, which sought to spread the partnership model across the country through centers of excellence, was later folded into the larger FSMA, which was signed into law on Jan 4, 2011.

In a memo to the working group, the CDC said that despite not being able to establish the centers this year, it will continue work on several related fronts, including strengthening and modernizing PulseNet and improving attribution analysis. It also said it would support various center activities through existing programs, such as developing foodborne illness outbreak training materials and developing standardized questionnaires for use in investigations.

The CDC added that it would prepare for the designation and funding of the centers, in case funding becomes available for fiscal years 2012 or 2013.

Hedberg said progress is still continuing through the Council to Improve Foodborne Outbreak Response (CIFOR), a national consortium of groups that have a stake in managing foodborne illness outbreaks, and the CDC's FoodCore program, which supports outbreak investigations.

Though the FoodCore program is equipped to demonstrate how to improve outbreak investigation performance across the public health system, Hedberg said it doesn't identify the best performance sites that are more rapidly identifying and solving outbreaks. He added that the centers of excellence would stand apart as the creative engine for change.

According to the FSMA timeline, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was to designate the five Food Safety Integrated Centers of Excellence by Jan 4, 2012, and submit the first report on their effectiveness by Jan 4, 2013, according to a timeline posted by Registrar Corp., which helps businesses comply with FDA regulations.

The FDA was behind on some major deadlines in implementing the FSMA, according to a Jan 20 Food Safety News (FSN) report. Given the breadth of the new law and the number of deliverables, Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner of foods, has warned that the agency might not meet all of the law's deadlines and that the FDA is prioritizing the tasks.

Consumer and public health groups have pushed the FDA to release new rules that are due, but have also praised the FDA's progress so far and have acknowledged that it has met a number of deadlines, according to the FSN report.

See also:

CDC FSMA background

May 28, 2009, CIDRAP News story "Senator to offer plan for upgrading US foodborne illness response"

Jan 31, 2011, Registrar Corp. timeline

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