As part of our ongoing expert Q&A series, a conversation with Jim O’Hara, director of the Produce Safety Project at Georgetown University, on food safety lessons from the EU, scale-appropriate produce safety regulations, and confidence in the U.S. food supply

Q: The Produce Safety Project just released a report on lessons to take away from certain European Union food safety reforms, what was your biggest takeaway from the report? Do you think we’re moving in the right direction?

A: First, my takeaway is one I think those of us who’ve been involved with food safety have known for some time: that we’ve made significant improvements in how we collect and analyze food safety data, but we have a long way to go. The integration and coordination of food safety data across the agencies is still lacking and its vitally important that that data be coordinated both in its collection and in its analysis so that we can really target our resources where they can make the most difference.

I think the value in our report is that it provides some concrete examples of what has been done in other countries that, I think, we can take elements from and apply in the United States. I’m a big fan of the annual report that is done that integrates the human health data, the animal data, the feed data, because I think that’s really basic public health surveillance.

The whole point of public health surveillance is to identify where the public’s health is at risk, design approach prevention efforts, put them in place, and then measure them. I think right now its very hard for us to measure and to really hold accountable, in the way that we should, because we don’t have the data collected or analyzed in the way that is most efficient for looking at risk assessment.

Q: What are the barriers to doing this?

A: There are several. Obviously, resources is a huge barrier. Being able to do these kinds of data collection and analysis takes money, takes staff time. There are clearly institutional barriers. I think the teamwork at the federal level today is incredibly better than it was, say 10 years ago when I was involved in it.  But I think that there are still some institutional or turf issues, if you will.  I think that to some degree it’s an issue of political will. The leaders in the agencies need to step up to the plate and make the case to Congress. And, frankly, Congress then needs to really think about what will make a difference.

Q: Are you optimistic the pending food safety legislation will make a big difference?

A: Yes, I think the legislation moving forward will clearly be another significant step forward. Is it the last step forward? No. But, it’s a signifcant step forward. I just hope that now that the financial regulatory bill is off the Senate floor that the Senate will find time to consider the food safety legislation.

Q: Do you think our food supply is safer than when you first got involved in food safety [in the early 1990s]? What have been the most important policy changes?

A: I think our food supply is safe. Can we make it safer each day, or reduce the risks each day? Sure. I think that when you take a look at the trend data that [the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] publishes, say with regard to Healthy People 2010, clearly our progress in reducing risk has stalled, when it comes to a number of the critical pathogens. My perception of food safety reform is that it’s a slow process, it sometimes tends to be one step forward and a couple steps sideways.

I think this Administration has clearly put a priority on food safety. I think this Administration has clearly put a priority on coordination between the federal agencies, I think that’s important. I think over the years, there have been a number of efforts by various sectors that have improved our efforts at food safety. The industry has taken some important steps, I think the efforts to better coordinate between state and local public health agencies–things like the Food and Drug Administration’s 50-State Meeting–have been important steps.

Food safety reform is not something that happens overnight. It needs to be done with a view to the long haul, which means there has to be a commitment to the long haul. We’re never going to be at zero risk, but we can identify where we’re not doing a job and we can then target our efforts to make improvements.
Q: I know the Produce Safety Project has been helping the FDA develop new, on-farm produce safety standards, in part by hosting a series of listening sessions. I’m sure you’re aware of the concern among small farmers that those regulations will end up being onerous, especially for those growing several different crops. Could you talk about how you see new standards affecting those kinds of growers, and whether you think their concerns are warranted?

A: Well, clearly the concerns are warranted because the reality is that growers and farmers operate on pretty slim profit margins to being with. So any additional cost is going to be an issue that they will be concerned about.

At the same time, food safety is everybody’s job. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a small farm or a large corporate farm, food safety is what you should wake up in the morning thinking about–obviously along with how to maximize your crop yields, and all those things. We heard from the farmers in the sessions that they got that. They’re prepared to do it, they just want some common sense taken.

I think that that’s what we’re all looking for from the Food and Drug Administration. How do you do this in a way that will work for both the small, if you will, truck farm in Georgia or Ohio, and the large corporate farm in the Central Valley of California? That really is the challenge. Are there ways to address that? I think so… There are fairly traditional methods that FDA has used in dealing with scale. In terms of implementation times–how quickly somebody needs to implement and come into compliance, clearly education is going to be a huge part of this.

One of things that struck me in our meetings was that in areas where you have, for instance, really aggressive outreach efforts on GAPs, or Good Agricultural Practices, like what Cornell is doing, growers of all different scales get it and are doing it.  In areas where it didn’t seem like those efforts were readily available for growers, there was more of a mixed bag, if you will, about understanding the importance of it, and on how you go about implementing it in a way that makes sense for your farm. There are ways to address those concerns. I think that we need to make certain that FDA does put in place a rule that is viable for the small farmer as well as the large farmer. What I heard from the FDA officials in the meeting is that they get that, and they are committed to doing that.

Q: You get the sense FDA will be sensitive to the concerns of small farmers?

A: Oh absolutely. Absolutely. It was a constant theme in all of our meetings. That’s why the FDA’s comment period–which they’ve now extended to the end of July–is so important, because what they repeatedly said to the growers was: We get scalability. Everybody talks scalability. Give us some ideas on how that could work for the farms of your size. As long as all segments go into this with good intentions and want to figure out how to make it work, we can make it work.

Q: I ask everyone this… How do you pick safe food? Do you avoid certain foods because you think they’re inherently risky?

A: I really don’t. I frankly tend to make my food choices more on taste. If I can buy fruits or vegetables that I think ar
e going to taste better I will do that. There’s no food I avoid on principle because I think it’s inherently risky, it comes down to what I think will taste good. There is a certain amount of risk in everything that we do everyday–whether its walking across the street or getting up out of bed. You’ve got to be smart about the risks you’re willing to entertain for yourself and your family, but as I say, I have confidence in the food supply.