F.D.A. points to progress in implementing Food Protection Plan

by Jay Sjerven
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WASHINGTON — The Food and Drug Administration on Dec. 1 released a nine-page report documenting what it said was "significant progress" in implementing its Food Protection Plan announced in November 2007. With a new administration taking power Jan. 20, the report was seen as the current F.D.A. leadership’s summation of efforts in the past year to strengthen the agency’s ability to protect the nation’s food supply from intentional or unintentional contamination and its affirmation the Food Protection Plan provides a foundation for further initiatives. Critics were not mollified by the report and asserted the F.D.A. still required an overhaul.

"Science and 21st century technologies help drive the F.D.A.’s efforts to transform our food safety efforts from the Food Protection Plan into a reality," Dr. Andrew C. von Eschenbach, the F.D.A. commissioner, said in introducing the report. "Every day, the F.D.A. is working with foreign countries, state and local governments, regulated industry and consumer groups to ensure the safety of the food supply. We also continue to work with members of Congress to achieve new authorities requested in the Food Protection Plan."

The Food Protection Plan outlined three priority areas for F.D.A. action: prevention, intervention and response. The plan’s prevention strategies are risk based, taking into account some foods are more susceptible to contamination than others. The plan called for targeted, risk-based interventions, particularly at points of manufacture and during distribution. Intervention initiatives within the plan emphasized high-priority inspections, improved risk-detection tools and verification that business practices across the food chain included effective preventive measures. The plan called for faster and more effective response to outbreaks of foodborne and feedborne illnesses, including establishing emergency response teams, enhancing collaboration with state and local authorities and improving communication with the public.

The report outlined accomplishments in the three mission areas.

With regard to prevention, the report pointed to the opening of F.D.A. offices in the People’s Republic of China and the hiring of staff for its intended office in India. F.D.A. offices also will be established in Europe and Latin America. The F.D.A. increased points of contact with regulatory authorities in China and other nations exporting food products to the United States and will hire an international notification coordinator to manage international information exchanges with foreign authorities.

Domestically, among prevention-related accomplishments were approval of the use of irradiation of iceberg lettuce and spinach for the control of pathogens, the release of the CARVER self-assessment tool for industry to protect against intentional contamination of food and outreach to industry as well as state, county and local agencies on how to work together in addressing challenges in protecting the food supply.

With regard to intervention, the F.D.A. indicated it inspected 5,930 high-risk domestic food establishments during fiscal 2008, piloted a program for inspection and sampling at high-risk companies in Denver and Minneapolis during the Democratic and Republican conventions and developed a rapid method for detecting E. coli and Salmonella that may be used by food processors. The F.D.A. also said an agency-initiated risk-based inspection of a canning facility identified cans with viable Clostridium botulinum spores that resulted in a recall.

Actions aimed at response included working with industry and the public to identify best practices for tracing fresh produce throughout the supply chain, enhancing the ability to coordinate a comprehensive response to foodborne illness outbreaks, hiring two emergency and complaint-response coordinators, and signing cooperative agreements with six states to form a rapid response team to establish an all-hazards response capability.

Dr. Jeff Levi, executive director of Trust for America’s Health, said after reviewing the report, "The staff at the F.D.A. should be commended for moving forward with some key initiatives to improve food safety, but they can only achieve limited success without the resources and multiyear planning to fundamentally fix the food safety system … We need a major overhaul matched by major investments to achieve the level of change needed."

Representative Rosa L. DeLauro of Connecticut, said, "While the F.D.A. will contend they are making progress on food safety, it is progress based on an outdated system and an outdated regulatory structure. Unfortunately, the recent situation involving melamine in baby formula demonstrates that significant work remains for the F.D.A. The long-term viability of these so-called reforms remains in doubt given that food safety will constantly be competing for attention and resources with medical product safety under F.D.A."

Ms. DeLauro reaffirmed her view any real progress in protecting the food supply required detaching the food safety responsibilities under the current F.D.A. mandate and reassigning them to a separate agency under the Department of Health and Human Services.

"It is only through this restructuring that the regulatory system will be provided with the expertise, management and resources focused exclusively on food safety to make legitimate reforms possible," Ms. DeLauro asserted.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, December 9, 2008, starting on Page 26. Click here to search that archive.

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