For the 10th year, a panel of the nation’s top food safety officials spoke Wednesday to more than 300 virtual Food Safety Summit attendees.   

Food and Drug Administration Deputy Commissioner Frank Yiannas told the virtual audience that it is also the 10th anniversary of the Food Safety Modernization Act.

Yiannas, who runs the FDA’s Food Policy and Response unit, recapped 2020’s experiences involving the pandemic and looked forward toward improved food safety.

“As we all know by now, the (COVID-19) virus is not transmitted by food,” Yiannas said. “Nor is food packaging much of a concern.”

As for FSMA, signed into law 10 years ago in January, Yiannas said the new law to prevent foodborne illness remains a “monumental undertaking.”

He outlined the FSMA work program that post-pandemic will be back on track, including agricultural water standards, traceability and technology advances.

On the panel with Yiannas were Sherri McGarry and Robert Tauxe, both from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Sandra Eskin from USDA, and Steven Mandernach from the Association of Food and Drug Officials (AFDO).

McGarry, CDC’s liaison with FDA during the pandemic, said there is a reason now to be optimistic as the incidents of new COVID-19 cases have dropped recently by 79 percent. The more people who receive the vaccine have resulted in a dramatic drop in new cases.

She said real people remain behind all the numbers.

As for outbreaks of foodborne illness during the pandemic year, the CDC’s Tauxe said demand for food outbreak-related lab work early on was down by as much as 50 percent.

Tauxe, Director of the Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases at CDC, said doctors and local public health departments were not submitting lab work because people stayed away from the medical system for anything but COVID.

That did not mean that the CDC wasn’t able to investigate large and unusual outbreaks during 2020. It had gone to whole-genome sequencing (WGS) as the standard laboratory and data analysis method by the end of 2019.

Tauxe said of particular concern was the pre-harvest Salmonella contamination of onions and peaches. A Salmonella Newport outbreak sourced to onions sickened 1,127 in 48 states, sending 167 to hospitals.

The Salmonella Enteritidis outbreak involving peaches involved 101 confirmed cases in 17 states with 28 hospitalizations.

Tauxe said the WGS technology helps CDC find more outbreaks.

AFDO’s Mandernach said his organization found itself celebrating its 125th year in business during the pandemic. He said it was an opportunity for AFDO to practice “domestic mutual reliance.”

Mandernach said “new metrics” will be needed to measure a public health system based on prevention.   

Finally, the attendees heard from Sandra Eskin, the newly appointed Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety at USDA.

With her new appointment, Eskin said she felt somewhat like a high school student who’s been invited into the teacher’s lounge. A lawyer, she previously headed up food safety at the Pew Charitable Trusts and has been working on the issue since 1993.

Eskin said consumer advocacy and the USDA’s public health responsibilities are going to be her guideposts in her new position. She expressed support for what can be accomplished by public-private partnerships.

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