Study by The Produce Safety Project Finds U.S. Food Safety System Needs To Integrate Human Health, Animal, and Plant Pathogen Data
The Produce Safety Project, a joint initiative of Georgetown University and the Pew Charitable Trusts, issued a report last week that examines select European Union (EU) countries’ efforts to improve their food safety data collection and analysis systems over the past two decades.
Drawing from Denmark, The Netherlands, and the United Kingdom’s experience, the report offers key recommendations for improving the U.S. food safety system.
Authors Michael Batz, head of Food Safety Programs, Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida, and J. Glenn Morris, Jr., director at the Institute, explain in the report they aimed to “discover what we could learn from the experiences of these European countries, and what actions, if any, could be taken from their experiences and used to improve the information foundation of the U.S. food safety system.”
One key recommendation of the report is the annual publication of a unified cross-agency report on tracking foodborne pathogens in humans, animals, food, and feed.
Batz and Morris suggest the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) should summarize surveillance data on human foodborne illnesses, including outbreaks and sporadic cases, and on pathogen contamination in domestic and imported animals, food, and feed.
“A national annual report on food safety will actually tell us if we are making progress or not in reducing the burden of foodborne illness,” said Jim O’Hara, director of the Produce Safety Project, in a release last week. “It is a yardstick we don’t have now.”
“Not only will an analysis give us a consolidated examination of the current state of affairs throughout the country, it will also require our food safety agencies to gather, organize, and analyze data in a consistent and timely manner,” said Batz, co-author of the report.
“We also believe there is an advantage to be gained by creation of an independent federal institute for food safety risk analysis,” said Morris, co-author of the report. “It would be comprised of the majority of scientists and analysts currently within FDA, CDC, and USDA food safety groups and tasked with supporting a risk-based food system through integrated research, data collection, and analysis. That is the model from European countries with strong food safety systems.”
Though the study notes that in some cases food safety responsibilities remain spread across several agencies in the highlighted countries–and fragmentation and duplication remain issues–efforts to consolidate have helped “clarify the roles and responsibilities of these agencies and have led to increased coordination and integration of food safety information.”
Though several U.S. lawmakers and food safety experts have long called for a consolidated food safety agency to improve coordination of the federal food safety system, widespread support for that degree of reorganization is lacking.
Batz and Morris identified nine policies and activities that have improved “the information foundation for food safety that is science-based, risk-informed, and data-driven.” Here is a summary of their key findings:
(1) The consolidation and centralization of food safety authority has improved information flows supportive of science- and risk-based policy.
(2) Annual reports provide policymakers and stakeholders with unified analysis of pathogen surveillance in humans, animals, food, and feed.
(3) Integrated approaches to data collection, collation, and analysis include advanced food attribution programs that combine human data with animal and food data.
(4) The European Union and some EU countries employ coordinated surveillance programs for pathogens in animals, food, and feed.
(5) Independent scientific institutes facilitate integrated approaches to managing and analyzing data.
(6) Regulatory agencies prioritize and partially coordinate research programs.
(7) Risk analysis is the defined process for policy decision-making.
(8) Programs and policies employ transparency and public participation as key principles.
(9) The European Union has extensive traceability requirements and has made major investments in next-generation systems.
But is food safer in Europe?
According to the report, “Rates of foodborne illnesses are generally similar in both spheres, and no substantial data suggest that food consumed in the United States is any safer or less safe than that consumed in Europe.” Though, as Batz and Morris note in their paper, it’s problematic to directly compare the U.S. food safety system to those of nations in the EU.
The U.S. is double the geographic size of the EU, but has only 60 percent of the population. The UK is the size of Michigan, yet its population is equal to those of California and Texas combined. Comparisons with the Netherlands and Denmark are similarly difficult, both are much smaller in size and population.
EU governance structure as well as a wide diversity of cultural, demographic, and sociopolitical differences further complicate making direct system comparisons.
Though direct comparisons are tricky, Batz and Morris point out that there are plenty of lessons to be learned from successful food safety reforms in EU countries with strong food regulatory systems. In a release last week they outlined some of their recommendations, all of which can be implemented within the existing U.S. food safety system:
(1) Revamping farm-to-table surveillance of domestic and imported food by developing a national surveillance plan and expanding collection of data on contamination of foods.
(2) Increasing capacity for integrated food safety analysis by developing cross-agency strategies for priority setting and attributing the burden of specific foods to overall foodborne illness.
(3) Better coordination of food safety research by publishing annually updated lists of prioritized research needs and increasing the role of regulators in research program priorities.
(4) Ensuring transparency and public participation.
(5) Improving effectiveness of trace-back and trace-forward data for outbreak response by expanding traceability requirements along food chain. Standardizing record-keeping and creating incentives or requirements for electronic information tracking will further help gather this data.
As Batz and Morris explain in the report, “Ultimately, improving the risk basis of the U.S. food safety system will require a more coordinated and integrated approach to collecting, managing, analyzing, and communicating food safety information.”