Caroline Smith DeWaal today told IAFP delegates to think big when tackling challenges of the 21st century as she opened the virtual event.

The deputy director of EatSafe (Evidence and Action Towards Safe, Nutritious Food) at the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), gave the Ivan Parkin Lecture called “Audacious Innovation: Critical Tools for the 21st Century” at the International Association for Food Protection’s (IAFP) annual conference and meeting.

“If there was ever a time for lifesaving audacious innovation it is now but it must be built on good science. The world around us is changing faster than the publication schedule for scientific journals. What is audacious innovation? It means pushing the envelope, working outside your comfort zone, moving science at the speed of change,” she said.

In the past 20 years, great strides have been made in the food safety area, but with each repeated foodborne outbreak, the evidence is mounting that the change is not fast enough. The first example of change was innovation in outbreak surveillance.

Metrics to standardize reporting
“As we’ve seen during the current pandemic, public health information is vital for public health action. With food-related outbreaks the information assists consumers, retailers, and the industry as well as government officials at the local, state, and national levels,” said DeWaal.

“Let’s imagine in your pocket on your phone there is an app that lets you record illnesses in real-time and lets further imagine the app links to this group of food safety officials, medical doctors in New York, livestock veterinarians in Colorado, and wildlife experts in Tanzania. These apps are being developed to report in real-time on illness occurrences on a one health framework. So that outbreaks and epidemics can be stopped before they become pandemics.

“Key to this vision is having a set of metrics that standardize reporting. These outbreak timeline metrics were developed by an expert group brought together by Ending Pandemics. To more rapidly identify outbreaks they used key events to record and help public health officials measure the time intervals between select outbreak milestones such as from the date of outbreak start to the date of the outbreak detection. The speed of outbreak surveillance systems can be correlated with the number of cases, the severity of outcomes, the lives lost, and cost to the public health systems. The timeline metrics are already being used by the World Health Organization.”

Lack of food safety data
The talk also covered innovation in information sharing and the Food Systems Dashboard launched this past spring as the joint project of Johns Hopkins University and GAIN with other collaborators. It links together data from global supply chains, food environments, consumer behavior, and diets.

“Looking at one country you can get data on all these factors like production systems, input supply, food availability, climate change, income growth and the proportion of the household budget spent on food and beverages and you can compare it to other countries in that region as well as global averages. You can also use the dashboard to see how different regions food systems operate in tandem or where they diverge,” said DeWaal.

“While the database represents an advance in information sharing, it is lacking in one essential area and that is food safety data. This is in part because food safety data has proven hard to collect globally and it is not standardized across countries in the way economic data is. This is an opportunity for IAFP and food safety experts to help identify food safety data sources for the Food Systems dashboard.”

What drove food safety passion
DeWaal told delegates about a workshop she attended this past year where attendees were asked to share an experience that shaped their professional lives.

“In January 1993, I was a new mother home on maternity leave. I was already working as a consumer advocate on food safety but it was quite early in my career. One morning I got up and looked at the front page of the Washington Post, there were two stories,” she said.

“One was the upcoming inauguration of Bill Clinton, then president-elect, and the other was about this mysterious outbreak in Washington State where hospitals were becoming overwhelmed by children with a mysterious disease. This was the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak. Lauren Rudolph (1986-1992) was the first case in that outbreak. She died several weeks earlier, two states away. I met her mother, Roni Rudolph, later that year.

“The parents I worked with for the next two decades had the greatest impact on my career. Alex Donley died (1987-1993) from E. coli O157:H7 later in 1993 though he was not part of the same outbreak. His mother organized a protest at the American Meat Institute meeting in Chicago with the parents of children who had been her son’s classmates and those classmates to draw attention to the fact that despite the Jack in the Box outbreak that sickened more than 700 people and four children died nothing had changed to protect her son from E. coli. These families, these children are what drove my passion for food safety.”

DeWaal also talked about a Listeria outbreak in 1999.

“How could another serious outbreak occur? This was the question I posed to government officials over and over again. Barbara Kowalcyk and her mother Pat came to Washington so frequently after Kevin’s (1998-2001) death from E. coli to help advocate for stronger food safety laws,” she said.

“Maybe I was tough on regulators and the industry but I felt it was warranted by each outbreak and each child’s voice that was silenced. Later while working on the Food Safety Modernization Act, I was honored to testify in Congress side by side with families of others who died following major outbreaks.”

EatSafe aims to improve the safety of nutritious foods in informal market settings in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) with an initial focus on five sub-Saharan African countries. The five-year program, launched this year, is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the consortium includes the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).

Three webinars were presented in August and September on food safety and nutrition, food safety in traditional, or informal, markets in Africa and Asia, and measuring performance for food safety.

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