A Conversation with Jerry Wojtala, executive director of the International Food Protection Training Institute

The President’s 2011 federal budget was recently amended to include an $8 million request to fund the International Food Protection Training Institute (IFPTI), a non-profit organization dedicated to career-spanning food protection training for state and local food protection professionals, located in Battle Creek, Michigan. The request is significantly greater than the $1 million approved in the 2010 federal budget, and will allow IFPTI to greatly expand its current training initiatives.

In partnership with the Association of Food & Drug Officials, and in collaboration with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), IFPTI has trained approximately 300 food protection professionals from more than 30 states, and with the additional resources, the organization expects to have the capacity to train up to 2,000 to 3,000 food safety officials in 2011.

Food Safety News recently had a chance to chat with Jerry Wojtala, executive director of IFPTI, about the history of the organization and its critical role in fixing the U.S. food safety system.

Q: How did IFPTI get started?

A: Two years ago or so is when things really started rolling. We’d been having some discussions with some folks at FDA and others about the need for training state and local regulators of food officials, and really that whole discussion kind of evolved around the need for an integrated food safety system here in the United States, and if you recall, there was a report that came out from George Washington University that dealt with the role of state and local agencies in the nationally integrated food safety system. 

The timing seemed really right, because this idea is not new, it really came out from back in 1998 at the first 50 state meeting that occurred–there was an identification of a need for a training academy of sorts.  

Q: Why Battle Creek?

A: Part of the genesis came about a couple of years ago when we were still in the middle of the melamine situation with pet food and infant formula. Back then the Michigan Department of Agriculture held a food safety summit to discuss issues of food manufacturers and the question was kind of asked of a number of companies was “what keeps you up at night?”  Invariably, people talked about the availability of consistent, safe ingredients in our global food system, now that ingredients are coming from all over the world. There is real concern.  

The Kellogg company, as you know, is in Battle Creek…and the Kellogg Foundation, which is totally separate from the company, was very concerned at the time and suggested that, considering history of food science in the city of Battle Creek, perhaps this would be something that the foundation would like to put some seed money into. That’s really how it started in Battle Creek, with the Kellogg Foundation, whose mission is to look at protecting children in particular, and making sure that nutrition and food safety was available for the most vulnerable of our population.

They decided to put some seed money into the project and the rest is history.  We’ve started getting some support from FDA and started partnering with folks like FDA and the Association of Food and Drug officials, who have been instrumental.

Q: With this new budget request–how involved is IFPTI in working to keep that money in the budget? Who is lobbying on behalf of the organization?

A: The congressman from Battle Creek, Mark Schauer, has made this one of his missions to make sure that this is a success and so has Congressman Schauer, and of course the two senators from Michigan, Levin and Stabenow, have proposed a couple of bills to fund this.

They are still working on some funding language and some of the current safety legislation, but he is approaching it from the budget standpoint. Congressman Schauer has been instrumental in looking for long-term funding to build on the Kellogg Foundation seed funding.

See tomorrow’s edition for Part II of the discussion.