This past weekend, environmental health professionals, local, state and federal health department officials, industry representatives, teachers and students, convened in Columbus, Ohio for the 75th National Environmental Health Association (NEHA) Annual Educational Conference (AEC). However, as organizers of the event described, it is so much more than just a conference. NEHA representatives explained that the event provides attendees with opportunities for training, education, networking, development and inspiration. Specifically, the conference offers lectures and panel discussions on a wide range of topics including food protection and defense, international environmental health, healthy homes, and safe drinking water, just to name a few.
NEHA was originally created as a national professional society for environmental health practitioners with the intention of establishing a standard of excellence for the profession. That standard is today known as the Registered Environmental Health Specialist or Registered Sanitarian credential. Founded in 1937, NEHA currently boasts a membership of 4,500 diverse individuals nationwide who continuously strive to uphold the organization’s mission “to advance the environmental health and protection professional for the purpose of providing a healthful environment for all.”
One well-attended session was a panel discussion held on Saturday, June 18, about the recently enacted Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). Timothy Weigner, Branch Director for Development and Integration at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), facilitated the presentations and provided a concise overview of the new law.
Weigner opened the session by addressing the numerous reasons why the new food safety legislation is so crucial. For instance, he suggested that the growth of globalization, the significant amount of food being produced overseas, and the presence of new hazards and pathogens demonstrate not only that food production and distribution have undergone major changes in the past several decades, but that our food safety regime must be updated to encompass those changes.
With 50 new rules contained in FSMA to be implemented by FDA, Weigner explained that this will require the creation of a new food safety system. According to Weigner, it will be a system that, among other things, imposes new import requirements, mandates broad prevention and accountability mechanisms, emphasizes the need for FDA to establish partnerships with other agencies, examines the farm to table continuum, and recognizes that everyone has a role to play.
The FSMA has been touted by many as being the most groundbreaking food safety legislation in over half a century. In agreement, Weigner remarked that “it is a huge step from where we’ve been.” However, the question that has lingered in the minds of government authorities, health officials, and industry representatives is how to put the law into action. During the discussion, Weigner introduced 8 panelists, each with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and knowledge, who attempted to answer this question. There were certain common themes seen throughout the presentations: the formation of partnerships, the development of proper training programs, and sufficient sources of funding.
Specifically, in his introductory remarks, Weigner expressed the effectiveness of securing partnerships or creating “coalitions” between public health agencies at the local, state and federal levels, laboratories, and universities. Panelist Robert Blake, Branch Chief of Environmental Health Services at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), agreed with the importance of partnerships between FDA and other agencies in order to accomplish full implementation of FSMA, and he added that the CDC is prepared to forge that partnership. “The CDC recognizes that the FDA carries most of the burden of implementing the law, however CDC’s work in tracing a foodborne illness back to the source is a vital link,” he said. Blake explained that the CDC has embraced FSMA and plans to work with FDA as well as other public health agencies to enhance disease surveillance systems and study trends in foodborne illness outbreaks.
Brian Collins, Director of Environmental Health for the City of Plano Health Department in Texas, agreed that partnerships are vital to the successful implementation of FSMA. Looking at FSMA from a local agency perspective, Collins speculated that FDA will likely need to form and maintain critical partnerships with state and local agencies. In doing so, Collins said that these partnerships would make it easier for FDA to call upon local health authorities to assist in the inspection of food production facilities. However, Collins mentioned that partnerships could also have the added benefit of providing state and local agencies with certain new opportunities for grants and certification.
In further support of the creation of partnerships, William Dardick, statistician and psychometrician with FDA, stated, “No one can do the job themselves.” Instead, he believes that collaboration amongst agencies is the key to accomplishing the primary goal of FSMA, creating a safer food system. “As partners we can move forward,” he said. Partnerships, Dardick explained, allow agencies to rely on one another for help and guidance.
Yet, panelist David McSwane, Professor and Interim Associate Dean within the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University, went even further to suggest that implementation of FSMA will require “responsibilities to now be shared, not only between agencies, but between sectors.” From his academic perspective, universities can serve as valuable partners in improving the nation’s food safety system by being a source of the underlying science used to formulate new programs and policies under FSMA.
Importantly, Dardick pointed out that the creation of partnerships overlaps significantly with another vital aspect of implementing FSMA, which is proper training. By investigating how health officials and food safety specialists in partner agencies do their job, developers of training programs will have the “blueprints,” as Dardick said, necessary to identify the gaps and to enhance current training programs.
McSwane also highlighted that training will be a key element in achieving an integrated food safety system as laid out in FSMA. “Training provides the knowledge and skills required to implement FSMA,” he said. Due to the growing complexity of our food production and distribution system, it will not only be necessary for individuals to be trained with greater specialization, but it will also require new approaches to training that may cross traditional and even jurisdictional boundaries. In addition, McSwane predicts that training programs will now be crafted to provide a career-spanning curriculum that will include foundational courses as well as areas of specialization. Under FSMA, individuals will now be expected to make a commitment to progress and expansion of knowledge throughout their career.
However, creating these training programs will be a challenge. As Dardick expressed, “it takes time to build a quality training course. The work is not going to happen overnight.” McSwane explained that it may be difficult to establish a network of instructors to administer the training courses. The main issue, though, as McSwane addressed, is whether agencies will have the resources to make training available and accessible.
In his talk, attorney and panelist Bill Marler, focused on the funding of FSMA. A food safety advocate (and sponsor of Food Safety News), Marler worked with legislators to see FSMA signed by President Barack Obama in
January 2011. As Marler des
cribed, “FSMA was a rare piece of legislation that was bipartisan.” It was a moment in history where consumer advocacy groups and industry groups walked hand in hand, Marler stated. However, many fear that with agency-wide budget cuts anticipated for the 2012 fiscal year, FDA will not receive the requisite resources to sufficiently fund the provisions of FSMA.
Marler recited the statistic that approximately 48 million people (1 in 6 Americans) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die each year from preventable foodborne diseases. He made a provocative analogy between the 3,000 foodborne illness related deaths that occur each year and the 3,000 lives lost on the September 11, 2001. “We’ve spent billions of dollars on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and on making airports safer, and yet we can’t seem to scrape together the $1.5 billion over 5 years necessary to fully implement FSMA,” argued Marler. He concluded his lecture by urging the NEHA AEC audience to petition their state senators to not cut funding for FDA so that FSMA may be implemented to its greatest potential.