PART II: On the food safety policy outlook for 2010, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s expansion overseas, and the Reportable Food Registry’s potential: A conversation with CSPI’s Caroline Smith DeWaal.
Caroline Smith DeWaal is one of the most important forces in food safety policy. As director of the food safety program at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer advocacy organization inside the beltway, Smith DeWaal has worked tirelessly to reform the food safety system both at home and abroad. She co-authored “Is Our Food Safe? A Consumer’s Guide to Protecting Your Health and the Environment,” has served on several World Health Organization food safety committees, and is the representative for the International Association of Consumer Food Organizations on the Codex Committee on Food Hygiene.
Smith DeWaal is also an invaluable resource to Congressional staff working on food safety issues both behind the scenes and as a frequent expert witness in Congressional hearings.
Food Safety News had a chance to chat with Smith DeWaal about international food safety culture, FDA’s new Reportable Food Registry, and the 2010 outlook for food safety policy.
For PART I of our discussion with Smith DeWaal–on this year in food safety and where Congress stands on the pending food safety legislation–see yesterday’s edition of FSN.
Q: What are the next big food safety priorities for the new year, after the food safety modernization bill? Antibiotic resistance? School Nutrition Reauthorization…?
A: At CSPI, we have staff working on the child nutrition reauthorization act, both on the nutrition side and on the food safety side.
Q: Do you think that public support for stronger food safety provisions in the school lunch program will stem from the USA Today series on school lunch safety?
A: USA Today has done a very amazing series on food safety issues linked to school lunches and I definitely see the series as providing an impetus both for a congressional response but also for the administration to respond. The reporters certainly educated me on some aspects of the program and I think that there’s an opportunity for USDA to strengthen that program over the coming years.
Q: The FDA just opened a new post in Mexico City–how important is the international expansion of the agency? Is it such an enormous task that one office here or there won’t do anything, or is this a trend that will have a significant impact?
A: I think what’s really good about the move is that it will allow the FDA officials who are on the ground there to develop some important cultural awareness. There are important national and regional differences, so if you’re constantly coming into situations with just an American perspective you may not be seeing the whole picture.
I think it’s really important to have staff in these foreign countries, but I think what’s not clear yet is what their mission is over there. If FDA sees their mission as inspecting every facility that is going to ship product into the United States, they’re going to find that it’s mission impossible–and the staff will be constantly behind and continually frustrated.
So the agency needs to develop the tools and the mechanisms to allow these staff to be very effective while also relying on foreign governments and in some cases even third parties to help with the actual on site inspections and facility audits. It’s critical that FDA develop trusted partners in those countries and it will be much easier to develop those relationships if they have staff on the ground.
Q: On the FDA’s Reportable Food Registry, do you think this will ultimately be an effective food safety tool?
A: There are some clear bugs in the system right now, but I think in the long run these reports to the government will only be useful if the government ties them into some kind of rapid alert system. We learned a long time ago that getting information into the government isn’t the same thing as getting information out to the public. The classic example is the states submitting outbreak data to CDC which then CSPI had to submit FOIA letters to CDC to get the data released. Similarly the Reportable Food Registry will do nothing if it just goes into the government but they don’t make it publicly available for both alerts and research.
Ideally these reports become important information for FDA, both for immediate follow up and also to set up an effective rapid alert system that can be used to inform, for example, school lunch programs, retailers, or institutional purchasers. It’s critical that the system result in actual alerts, and a more effective system of food safety protections for the public.