Tuesday’s schedule at the International Association for Food Protection (IAFP) annual meeting in Portland, OR, featured the “Mike and Al Show” competing with lunch, but there still was a large crowd at the Oregon Convention Center to hear two of the nation’s top food safety officials. Mike Taylor, Deputy FDA Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine, and Al Almanza, Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety at USDA, each gave a few remarks before opening themselves to questions. It was not long into the questioning before someone was trying to get a rise out of them.

Mike Taylor (left) and Al Almanza spoke Tuesday at the IAFP annual meeting in Portland, OR.
Taylor said FDA is “on track” to finally implement the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) as the series of final rules kick in beginning in August and continuing through early 2016. “The future is now,” Taylor said. FSMA was signed into law in January 2011 by President Obama. Since then, Taylor has led FDA’s work to make the law a reality. “We feel really good about the regulations,” Taylor told the gathering of government, industry and academic food safety professionals meeting in the Rose City since Saturday. He said the agency is looking forward to getting the final rules “out the door.” FSMA represents the biggest reform in food safety in the U.S. in 70 years. It was passed by a bipartisan majority in Congress in late 2010. As the release dates for the final rules approach, Taylor said FDA’s focus is already turning to implementation. He expressed concern about three areas. The first is FDA’s own workforce. Taylor said FDA has to transform itself from the enforcement model, where staff members are just looking for infractions, to one where FDA is looking at a food company’s overall safety system and whether it is effective in preventing foodborne illnesses. The other two areas of concern he referenced are FDA’s relationships with state health and agriculture departments and food imports. “We’ve accepted a whole new strategic approach,” Taylor explained. “Folks making food want to make it safe.” He said he does not envision FDA being on the farm with any regularity under the new produce rule. “We have to invest in the states,” he said. That brought him around to FDA’s need for more 2016 funding from Congress. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) figured the agency would need $580 million over five years to implement FSMA, but so far they’ve only received 28 percent of that. The Obama administration’s budget request for 2016 would increase the amount to about 50 percent of the original CBO figure. If FDA does not get that, Taylor said state funding and the work needed on imports won’t happen. “We just want to be crystal clear about this budget,” he added. For his part, Almanza provided a series of short updates on work underway at USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), including the implementation of the new poultry rule and next year’s planned regulation of mechanical tenderization. Almanza also said the recent requirement for retail stores to keep grinder’s logs was prompted by the fact that, from 2007-2013, there were 74 ground beef recalls and 31 involved grinding at the retail level. Then came audience questions, including one by Carl Custer, a former FSIS official. First Custer noted that Brian Ronholm, the other Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety at USDA, had recently suggested that Salmonella in chicken is not an adulterant because poultry all needs to be cooked to the same temperature and then had gone on to explain that E. coli O157:H7 was declared an adulterant in hamburger because ground beef is often cooked to varying temperatures. Custer’s question for Almanza: Then should Salmonella in ground beef be declared an adulterant? Laughter all around. After some stumbling, Almanza decided that Taylor, who had Almanza’s  job during the Clinton administration (when he was first to declare O157:H7 an adulterant and banned it from beef) should have decided the thorny Salmonella issues back then. Laughter all around again. It’s what passed for humor on the final day of the group’s annual meeting.

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