In just the past few months, outbreaks involving romaine lettuce, pre-cut melons and Honey Smacks cereal have reminded us that the work to more effectively prevent foodborne illness is far from complete. People are still getting sick and dying, and markets are still being disrupted. Make no mistake, the commitment and effort are there among food safety professionals who work every day on farms, in factories and in retail settings to provide consumers safe food. And people at FDA and in state governments are working hard to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). 

But, I am concerned that leaders in Washington have lost their focus on food safety.  The best evidence of this is the lack of follow through to fully fund implementation of FSMA. The president’s 2019 budget request for the Food and Drug Administration, now pending in Congress, is essentially flat for food safety, which means a decrease in actual purchasing power due to rising costs for delivering services. 

In contrast, for FDA’s medical product programs, the 2019 budget requests an increase of more than $400 million. This imbalance in investment priorities occurs despite the fact that Congress has appropriated only about half of what the Congressional Budget Office estimated would be needed to successfully implement FSMA.   

This funding shortfall will have consequences in at least three strategically crucial areas.  

Imports — Congress mandated a new import safety system that includes new accountability for importers and many more FDA inspections of foreign facilities. FDA has put key pieces of the new system in place but is far short of the resources needed to fully implement the FSMA import mandate.  

Federal-state partnerships — FSMA envisions a true operational partnership between FDA and the States on produce safety. FDA has prioritized this, but success requires continued investment to build the capacity of states to provide the education and technical support to farmers, coupled with the high-quality inspection and enforcement, needed to prevent illness outbreaks in this crucial sector of our food system. 

FDA’s public health transformation — FDA is on a path to transform its oversight of food producers and processors and its approach to outbreak response to focus more intensely on the public health goal of preventing foodborne illness by using new technological and regulatory tools. But the needed modernization and melding of how FDA’s headquarters experts and field forces work together to deploy FSMA’s new tools for prevention and response is unfinished business that requires sustained focus and investment.  

It was my privilege to lead FDA’s food program from 2010 to 2016. This leaves me with the greatest respect for the people working there now, at all levels. Their commitment to public health is beyond question. I also understand the complexity of the daily and strategic challenges they face.  

In my current role with Stop Foodborne Illness — the consumer organization that for 25 years has represented and supported individuals directly affected by foodborne illness — I have had many conversations with people who were key to the consumer-industry coalition that supported the enactment of FSMA in 2011. This broad community’s passion and commitment to food safety remains as strong as ever and as necessary as ever. 

We now need our leaders in Washington to do their part by following through on funding and on the public health transformation FSMA envisions.

Michael Taylor

About the author: Mike Taylor is co-chair of the board of the non-profit consumer advocacy group Stop Foodborne Illness. Before that served as FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine from 2010 to mid-2016. His first tour in government began as a staff attorney at FDA, where he worked on seafood safety and nutrition labels. Later Taylor worked for USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, where he became acting under secretary for food safety. Taylor was the government official who, after the deadly 1992-93 Jack in the Box hamburger outbreak, ruled that the pathogen E. coli O157:H7 is an adulterant in meat. Taylor also practiced law in the private sector.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)