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JIFSAN: FDA-University Partnership Helps Enhance the Safety of Imported Food

A significant portion of the food that Americans consume comes from overseas, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t have the ability to inspect all imports, so it’s not a bad idea to intervene with preventive measures before the food reaches our ports.

“It’s much better and more efficient to control the problem at the source,” says Dr. Jianghong Meng, director of the Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (JIFSAN), which is one of FDA’s partners in establishing food safety training programs in other countries.

The collaboration between the agency and the University of Maryland works to train foreign producers and regulators in programs such as Good Agricultural Practices, Good Aquacultural Practices, Commercially Sterile Packaged Foods and inspector training.

JIFSAN was established in 1996 and has “been a very critical component of our international capacity building [efforts],” says Dr. Elizabeth Calvey, director of Collaborative Partnerships at FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

The institute frequently works with countries such as Mexico that supply the U.S. with a lot of produce, major seafood exporters such as Indonesia and Thailand, and spice producer heavyweight India.

In some cases — Malaysia and Jamaica, for example — foreign governments will reach out to JIFSAN directly, seeking help in improving their food safety systems, and they may secure funding for the work through the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

One of the more recent additions to training involves supply chain management for spice production, which began in 2012 after several large-scale Salmonella outbreaks prompted more awareness that spices can be common vehicles for contaminants. In many places, spices are dried outside by the heat of the sun, which can expose them to numerous contaminants, so JIFSAN teaches about how to produce them with less contamination risk.

But it’s not enough just to train individuals. Training the in-country trainers can have much broader success, so that’s where JIFSAN tends to focus their efforts.

Developing countries’ food safety systems “need to take ownership of their own training needs, and they also need to find partners within their countries and develop a plan to establish a sustainable program,” Calvey says. “What we discovered very early on in the 2000s when we started this adventure with JIFSAN was that if you don’t find a partner in a country to take on the responsibility for future training, then the effectiveness of one-off training is not apparent.”

After an initial partnership with JIFSAN in 2009, the Bangladesh Shrimp and Fish Foundation has reached out to many other organizations within Bangladesh, is working with U.S. Agency for International Development, and is developing training programs to enhance their aquaculture industry.

But even when targeting the trainers instead of individual producers, it’s still difficult to measure just how successful the education is at this point, Calvey says.

In addition to international safety training, JIFSAN works in risk analysis, laboratory training and research.

The institute educates food safety and other public health professionals about risk analysis tools and techniques and maintains FoodRisk.org, which assists professionals involved in conducting food safety risk analyses.

These courses were started just for FDA and Department of Agriculture employees, but today, many participants come from the international community as well. Risk analysis can be tricky to teach in some countries because it requires an established infrastructure that can produce the data central to the approach, but it’s “become a very important component of JIFSAN’s international training programs,” Meng says.

A new initiative launched in 2012 is training for laboratory methods in food microbiology and detection of chemical contaminants. The International Food Safety Training Laboratory (IFSTL) on UM’s campus is open to both domestic and international scientists.

Regarding research, JIFSAN mainly supports collaborations between FDA scientists and UM faculty members. They are currently involved with FDA’s major project in whole-genome sequencing of foodborne pathogens, and the two organizations are working together to develop a training program for the technology and its data analysis.

When there is a research need at the university and FDA doesn’t have the right expertise, JIFSAN will work with other organizations or universities such as Arizona State University and UC Davis to tackle it. It also goes beyond just hands-on laboratory research to include social sciences — for example, studies of how social media influence the spread of outbreak information.

With only 20 people working full-time on JIFSAN, collaboration is definitely important. The majority of instructors are from outside the organization; they’re from FDA, other universities and even industry.

“In our case, without partnership, without collaborations, we can’t do much,” Meng says. “Because food safety itself involves so many different things, it’s a complex problem. It requires solutions that employ all kinds of people and disciplines.”

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