Study shows need for state, local food safety efforts

by Keith Nunes
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WASHINGTON — In the wake of a series of high-profile foodborne illness outbreaks, the focus has been on how to improve government food safety efforts at the federal level. A new report issued by the Department of Health Policy at The George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services recommends the development of an integrated national food safety system that not only reforms federal food safety efforts, but also strengthens state and local government roles in detection and inspection.

"State and local agencies occupy the critical frontline in the nation’s food safety system," said Michael R. Taylor, former Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A.) official and research professor of health policy at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services and one of the report’s authors. "Food safety reform at the federal level will be incomplete and insufficient unless it strengthens state and local roles and builds true partnership across all levels of government."

At the local level alone there are approximately 3,000 public health agencies involved in food safety, according to the study. State-level departments of health and agriculture, as well as public health laboratories in most states, add to the complexity and fragmentation of the system, as does the role of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.), which interacts with agencies at all levels.

"The report highlights how local health departments protect people every day by helping to keep their food supply safe, whether they purchase food in a restaurant or store," said Robert M. Pestronk, executive director of the National Association of County and City Health Officials (N.A.C.C.H.O.). "At the same time, the report reinforces the need for an effective partnership among, and a greater allocation of resources to, federal, state and local government agencies. Staff capacities are eroding at an alarming rate due to the economic downturn and the graying of the workforce."

In addition to outlining the current roles of federal, state and local agencies in protecting Americans against foodborne illness, the report made 27 findings on the strengths and weaknesses in the current food safety system. For example, the authors noted progress in how federal, state and local agencies collaborate to detect foodborne outbreaks but also find state and local agencies are hampered in their response to and prevention of outbreaks by lack of focused federal leadership to build an integrated system, chronic underfunding, wide disparities in capacity and diversity of practices in all areas of food safety, and barriers to information sharing and collaboration. The report made 19 specific recommendations for strengthening state and local roles and building an integrated national food safety system that works effectively to prevent foodborne illness.

Among other recommendations, the report suggested the establishment of a network of regional, federally-funded foodborne outbreak response centers to ensure an integrated "systems" approach to investigations to prevent far-reaching foodborne illness outbreaks such as this winter’s peanut butter outbreak or last summer’s pepper problems. Each center would be staffed with a multi-disciplinary team of federal, state, and local epidemiologists, environmental health officials, regulators and communications experts to mount an effective response to outbreaks and conduct follow-up investigations to inform future prevention efforts. Another recommendation called for the integration and modernization of manufacturing facility inspections, urging federal officials to dismantle legal, technical and bureaucratic barriers that prevent sharing of food safety data among federal, state and local agencies.

The report was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and is available by visiting http://thefsrc.org.

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