CHICAGO — Optimism was running high at the Food Safety Summit Thursday when four heavy hitters took the stage for a town hall session where 2016 was characterized as a tipping point.
Advances in science and technology are combining with legislative and regulatory changes to catapult the country into a new era where Americans will enjoy safer food and fewer foodborne illnesses according to a panel of experts that included Dr. Robert Tauxe of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“At the CDC we connect the dots between people and the safety of the food they eat,” said Tauxe, director of the CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases.
Many of the dots involved make up the genetic fingerprints of specific isolates, or strains, of pathogens such as Listeria monocytogenes, E. coli and Salmonella. Tauxe said with the application of whole genome sequencing — which sorts through the 3 million DNA “letters” in any given Listeria sample — the CDC is identifying and solving outbreaks faster.
Before it began using whole genome sequencing, the CDC was “solving” about two outbreaks a year, Tauxe said.
“In 2015 we solved nine outbreaks and we identified outbreaks faster, which means we stopped them earlier,” Tauxe said.
This year the agency plans to rollout whole genome sequencing (WGS) to 30 states, with the rest of the country to be online with the technique in two years.
“We may look back on 2016 as a tipping point in food safety,” Tauxe said, adding that the CDC has a goal of decreasing Salmonella infections by 20 percent in the next five years.
The other panelists at the town hall event shared similar hopes and goals.
The modernization of meat, poultry and egg inspections has been in the works for 20 years, said David Goldman, assistant administrator for the office of public health science for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.
“We’re about to publish a new strategic plan for fiscal year 2017,” Goldman said, adding that the introduction of new standards in the coming two years is expected to result in 50,000 fewer foodborne illnesses annually.
Goldman said some gaps in USDA’s testing are being tightened up. For example, instead of testing only whole carcasses federal inspectors will begin sampling individual cuts of meat. The agency also plans to begin testing food products that include meat and poultry, such as pot pies and other products.
Joe Corby has been watching the movement to integrate America’s food safety system since 1989. Now, as executive director of the Association of Food and Drug Officials (AFDO), Corby sees light at the end of the tunnel.
“Local, state and federal labs and officials are sharing information now,” Corby said. “Some individual leaders of ‘empires’ weren’t willing to cooperate like that back in those early days. It’s no longer the 1990s.”
Corby said 31 state labs are now accredited and 20 states have active rapid response teams to investigate foodborne illness outbreaks. But, Corby warned that the food industry and other stakeholders need to keep the momentum going.
“We have convinced industry and consumers but we need to turn our focus to state and federal legislators,” Corby said. “If they decrease funding now it could initiate a collapse of the efforts and progress so far.”
The view from the ‘lame duck’
The final panelist to address the town hall gathering of more than 1,000 food safety professionals was Michael Taylor, the Food and Drug Administration’s deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine.
“I’m the lame duck on the stage,” Taylor said at the opening of his remarks, referring to his planned departure from his FDA post next month.
Taylor has been at the helm of the FDA’s Office of Foods since January 2010, just months after the office was created in August 2009. Charged with developing a prevention-based strategy for food safety, Taylor has been focused on preparing FDA and the food industry for the realities of the implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).
“We are keenly aware that the hard part is still ahead,” Taylor said. “To accomplish the vision of FSMA we need to turn ideas we agree on into science-based practices.”
In the past five years Taylor presided over the development of rules mandated by FSMA that are designed to turn food safety in America away from reaction and toward prevention. He said he believes the change will have worldwide impact.
“It may take five or 10 years but translating these ideas into practices on a global scale is the future of food safety,” he said.
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