Citing “extraordinary commitment” from the White House to improve the food safety system, 400 experts met in Washington, DC Wednesday to discuss the best tools for measuring progress on food safety.

The meeting was hosted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and was attended by leaders in science, public health, consumer advocacy, and the food industry.

All of these key players gathered in one room for one purpose: to discuss the future of food safety metrics.

Mariano-Florentino (Tino) Cuellar, special assistant to the President for justice and regulatory policy at the White House Domestic Policy Council, emphasized the importance of measuring the food safety burden in his remarks at the meeting.

Cuellar said “we need to know where we stand” if we are to live up to the principles laid out in the President’s Food Safety Working Group, which are prioritizing prevention, strengthening surveillance and enforcement, and improving response and recovery.

As deputy undersecretary for food safety at USDA, Jerold Mande, put it: “The importance of today’s meeting can be described in one sentence: What doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done.”

Mande said he believes the food safety system is at a critical juncture.

“This is a watershed moment in food safety,” he said. “These moments, these opportunities, do not come often. But when they do, they significantly change our trajectory as businesses and regulators alike,” said Mande, who compared the current impetus to overhaul the food safety to the reform momentum in the wake Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle in 1906.

“Guided largely by the Working Group, we’re looking at the entire food safety system, and across jurisdictions and products. It is a watershed moment. We have a president, two secretaries, and leaders in Congress who have made improving food safety a priority,” said Mande, who called the status quo “unacceptable.”

Mande also discussed the importance of measuring progress. “We are not regulating for the sake of regulation,” he said. “We want results.”

“Before we make decisions on food safety policies and interventions, we must know how many people are getting sick each year from foodborne contaminants, and from which ones? Who, exactly, is getting sick and from which foods? And, overall, are we making progress toward reducing foodborne illnesses?”

Challenges in estimating the burden of foodborne illness

As Elaine Scallan, PhD, an Assistant Professor at Colorado School of Public Health explained at the meeting, there are a number of challenges public health officials face in the effort to estimate the total burden of foodborne illness.

“Only a small fraction of illness are actually confirmed by laboratory testing and reported to public health agencies,” said Scallan.

“Foods can be contaminated by many different agents: bacteria, viruses, parasites, chemicals, and toxins, some of these data have well established surveillance systems others don’t have any routing surveillance data,” she said. According to Scallan, Norovirus is a perfect example. “We consider [Norovirus] to be an important contributor to the burden of foodborne illness, yet there is no routine surveillance.”

Scallan also pointed out that many foodborne pathogens are also transmitted by animal-to-human contact or are also waterborne. For example: E. coli transmitted via a swimming pool or Salmonella via a pet turtle.

CDC is currently updating its foodborne illness estimates, which have remained the same since 1999: 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths annually.

Scallan says the CDC is using “new, refined methods” and newer data in the study, which is currently in peer review. She also noted that the CDC has worked for years to address some of the “data gaps” from the 1999 study.

CDC officials, consumer advocates, and food safety experts are all cautioning, however, that whatever the new numbers are, they cannot be compared to the 1999 estimates to indicate a trend, as the methodologies and data sources are fundamentally different.

It is unclear when the new estimates will be released. A spokesperson from CDC told Food Safety News last month the CDC’s food safety team hopes to release the study within the year, but with limited resources and ongoing epidemiological investigations, the timing remains uncertain.

Correction: This story originally incorrectly referred to Jerold Mande as undersecretary for food safety, he is deputy undersecretary.