Experts want cross-agency, food-safety studies

by Bryan Salvage
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WASHINGTON – One key recommendation of a new study issued by the Produce Safety Project that examines steps taken by select European Union (E.U.) countries to reform their food-safety data collection and analysis systems since the 1990s is for the U.S. to publish a yearly, unified, cross-agency study on tracking foodborne pathogens in humans, animals, food and feed.

The annual analyses, which would be produced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.), the Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A.), would summarize surveillance data on human foodborne illnesses – including outbreaks and sporadic cases – and on pathogen contamination in domestic and imported animals, food and feed.

Titled "Building the Science Foundation of a Modern Food Safety System," the recently completed study looks at European countries with strong food-safety systems and makes a number of recommendations on how to improve those in the U.S. The study was authored by Michael Batz, head of Food Safety Programs, Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida, and J. Glenn Morris, Jr., director at the Institute.

"A national annual report on food safety will actually tell us if we are making progress or not in reducing the burden of foodborne illness," said Jim O'Hara, director of the Produce Safety Project. "It is a yardstick we don't have now."

The analysis would also present trends and provide the evidence basis for measuring food-safety progress and include routinely updated national estimates of the incidence of foodborne illness due to major pathogens. The authors called for these reports to be written in a readable, consumer-friendly manner.

"Not only will an analysis give us a consolidated examination of the current state of affairs throughout the country, it will also require our food-safety agencies to gather, organize and analyze data in a consistent and timely manner," said Mr. Batz.

The study is based on extensive research and interviews with food-safety authorities in member countries of the E.U., particularly Denmark, The Netherlands and the United Kingdom, where reforms have focused on improving the science base and risk assessment of food-safety efforts.

"We also believe there is an advantage to be gained by creation of an independent federal institute for food-safety risk analysis," said Mr. Morris. "It would be comprised of the majority of scientists and analysts currently within F.D.A., C.D.C. and U.S.D.A. food-safety groups and tasked with supporting a risk-based food system through integrated research, data collection and analysis. That is the model from European countries with strong food-safety systems."

Within the existing systems in the U.S. the study outlines suggested steps to improve data collection and research, including:

• Revamp farm-to-table surveillance of domestic and imported food by developing a national surveillance plan and expanding collection of data on contamination of foods.

• Increase capacity for integrated food-safety analysis by developing cross-agency strategies for priority setting and attributing the burden of specific foods to overall foodborne illness.

• Better coordination of food-safety research by publishing annually updated lists of prioritized research needs and increasing the role of regulators in research program priorities.

• Ensure transparency and public participation.

• Improve effectiveness of trace-back and trace-forward data for outbreak response by expanding traceability requirements along food chain. Standardizing record-keeping and creating incentives or requirements for electronic information tracking will further help gather this data.

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