Despite modern communications, local, state, and federal food safety staff still cannot share data because of logistics and regulations. But so-called mutual reliance is closer to reality than it’s ever been.

Panelists from all levels of government came together this afternoon to discuss what’s left to do and what mutual reliance will mean to public safety during a session of the 2021 Food Safety Summit.

Moderator Joseph Corby, top left, spearheaded a discussion of food safety integration. Panelists, clockwise from the top center, were Deanna Copeland, Erik Mettler, Pam Miles, Maria Ishida, and Angela Montalbano.

Joseph Corby, the senior advisor to the Association of Food and Drug Officials (AFDO), moderated the session. He said he’s been watching and working toward cooperation and coordination among multi-levels of government for decades.

“The barriers have been complex,” Corby said, describing technological issues and regulatory roadblocks. But the situation is greatly improved. “We are at a point now where we can implement an integrated food safety system.”

One agency that is closing the gap between state and federal food safety people is Virginia’s health department. Pamela Miles, a program supervisor for the Food Safety Program at the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said an FDA grant has helped the state bridge the gap. A Rapid Response Team is now in place and meets weekly with people from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Before the team was in place, Miles said she got calls from the FDA on a daily basis. She had to coordinate meetings among interested parties, which took time and meant juggling schedules, delaying the business at hand. Now, with a rapid response team in place for a weekly meeting, many of the issues can be handled quickly and efficiently. Also, when unique issues pop up there is a structure in place to meet the challenges. Miles said the team method has proven to be very effective with outbreak responses.

One thing that would help downstream entities, Miles said is if the FDA would move away from contracts with state and local departments and go with cooperative agreements instead.

“We aren’t allowed to use contract money to hire staff because the contracts are only for one year at a time,” Miles said. Cooperative agreements, however, can be for multiple years and the funds do not carry the same hiring prohibition as the contractual relationships.

The state of New York has what Corby described as a unique cooperative relationship with the federal government, with results from state labs generating action by FDA. Angela Montalbano, region supervisor of the New York Department of Agriculture & Markets said that is no mistake.

A key benefit from such cooperative efforts is that duplication of efforts can be avoided. That saves time and money and better serves the public health mission of all involved, Montalbano said.

Maria Ishida, also of the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, said another important aspect of the department’s operations is the two-way sharing of information with federal agencies.

Ishida cited an example from a pilot program in recent years involving data packets from the state and the FDA’s use of them, especially for imported foods.

From September 2016 through September 2017 the New York department sent  10 data packets to the FDA. Only three of the packets were accepted, Ishida said. Through a pilot program the governmental entities agreed on three things:

  • The data packets are no longer simply accepted or rejected. Information is reviewed in a different way.
  • All data packets must go through one and only one state liaison.
  • All data packets are given a tracking number for easy identification throughout the entire process. 

After a pilot program reset, the number of data packets resulting in federal action jumped to 15 out of 18 sent. The action — imposition of Import Alerts — related to everything from spices contaminated with lead to fish contaminated with Listeria.

From the local health department perspective, Deanna Copeland, manager of  Harris County (TX) Public Health said she views ongoing training as one of the most important pieces of an integrated food system. She has been with the department for 20 years and said the dense population of its coverage area around Houston means it conducts more inspections than some states do.

Copeland said another key to mutual reliance up and down the regulatory spectrum is adherence to the FDA’s Food Code. Currently, the Harris County department is operating under the 2013 Food Code, but a move to the 2017 version is underway.

Speaking from the federal point of view, Erik Mettler, FDA’s assistant commissioner for Partnerships and Policy, ticked off four areas that need to be addressed for successful mutual reliance.

First, he said, agreements with states need to outlive the people who put them in place. He said too often successful programs fall by the wayside when the people who led the charge retire. He said an example of a better approach is an agreement the FDA has signed with Utah. It covers data sharing, collaboration on inspections, training, and establishing key monitoring.

Second, Mettler said, is information sharing. Currently, some governmental agencies are operating under legal restrictions that make it impossible for counterparts at other agencies to receive information. He said real-time information sharing is a must and without it, true integration won’t be achieved.

Third, better coordination and pre-planning are needed for recall situations, Mettler said. Federal agencies need to work well with not only localities and states but also businesses when it comes to recalling effectiveness.

Fourth, Mettler said the entire range of food safety professionals, from the top federal staff down to local inspectors need to be in the same mindset — that they are all part of one workforce. He said all should consider themselves food safety professionals and not separate into silos of local, state, and federal employees. 

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