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Q&A With Food Safety Expert Phyllis Entis

As a microbiologist and former Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) official, Phyllis Entis knows an awful lot about food safety. Her blog, eFoodAlert is an excellent resource for anyone who eats, manufactures, or regulates food. The blog keeps up-to-date recall alert information and provides insight and analysis on food safety issues–and it’s now read in over 165 countries. In addition to her blogging, Entis has written two books, Food Microbiology – The Laboratory, and Food Safety: Old Habits, New Perspectives, and has published more than 20 scientific articles in peer-reviewed journals.

Food Safety News had a chance to chat with Entis about her blog, recall alerts, and the food safety system.

Q: What’s the story behind eFoodAlert? And how do you keep it so up to date and comprehensive?

A: I started eFoodAlert in late 2007. At the time, there were very few web-based sources of information on food safety issues that were both readable and reliable. I wanted not only to provide information on US food safety issues, but also to address international concerns. My goal was, and is, to educate the public on food safety and related health issues around the world.

I monitor government web sites and news media around the world on a daily basis. I also receive information from my readers, making me aware of local (for them) food safety news issues that I might not have spotted. Fortunately, I’m a fast reader!

Q: Do you think the FDA and USDA are effective at disseminating recall information? Where could they improve?

A: FDA and USDA have been getting better than before (and they are both better than their counterparts in many other developed countries), but there is still room for significant improvement, especially in disseminating detailed information on retail distribution of recalled products. USDA has made greater improvements in this than FDA. On the other hand, FDA tends to be more effective than USDA in keeping the public apprised of the progress of major investigations.

Q: What’s your prediction on the hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) recalls — is this going to get a lot bigger? Was this an example of the Reportable Food Registry working?

A: Just a hunch, but I think we might be past the peak in terms of the number of new announcements. Keep in mind that not every food processor will need to recall. If the food in which HVP is used as an ingredient is subjected to a “kill step” by the processor, then a recall might not be deemed necessary.  Based on FDA’s posted information, I think that [the Reportable Food Registry] was instrumental in making FDA aware of the problem in a more timely fashion than would otherwise have been the case.

Q: Do you think the food safety bills (HR 2749 and S.510) are critical for improving food safety? Are there changes you’d like to see in the pending legislation?

A: Ideally, I would like to see all federal food regulatory activities consolidated into a single food safety agency, if it can be done right. I’m not thrilled with the Canadian model–responsibilities are split between Health Canada (policy) and CFIA (enforcement). I also worry when Congress gets too deeply into the nitty-gritty of regulations. Congress should provide the skeleton of regulatory authority, and leave it to FDA to write the specific implementing regulations.

Q: Is there a country you think we should model our food regulatory system after?

A: Canada first floated the idea of a unified food safety agency in the 1970s, but the concept was shot down by the then Minister of Agriculture, a very powerful member of Prime Minister Trudeau’s cabinet. I don’t think that Canada’s present “unified agency” system is ideal – policy rests with Health Canada and regulatory activities with CFIA (which was carved out of Agriculture Canada).  I’m not aware of any one country that has developed the ideal model. I think that we need to borrow good ideas wherever we can find them. Australia, for example, has developed a very clear-cut risk-based process for dealing with imported products.

Q: Does keeping track of the barrage of food recalls make it hard for you to eat? Are there any foods you avoid for safety reasons?

A: When I first started working in food safety, my mother joked with me that it was a good thing that I lived 2000 miles away from her; otherwise, she would never eat again! Certainly, I am aware of what and how I eat, especially when eating out. I try to avoid restaurant buffets, especially dishes such as scrambled eggs sitting in a warming tray. I also avoid fresh fruits and fresh salads when traveling in countries where the water might be problematic. I’m extremely cautious about sampling “street food” in underdeveloped countries.

Q: If you could change one thing about our food safety system tomorrow what would it be?

A: The mindset. FDA and FSIS don’t do everything that they can within the existing regulatory framework. Companies, for example, that knowingly ship contaminated food product should be prosecuted promptly and to the full extent of the law.

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