Eleven organizations that work closely with the Food and Drug Administration are asking bipartisan congressional leaders to work with them on “several pressing food safety issues this year.”

The eleven who’ve written congressional leaders include:

–Steven Mandernach, Executive Director, Association of Food and Drug Officials
–Donna Garren, Executive Vice President, Science, and Policy, American Frozen Food Institute –Jeffrey O. Ekoma, Association of State and Territorial Health Officials
–Roberta Wagner, Vice President, Regulatory and Technical Affairs, Consumer Brands

–Thomas Gremillion, Director of Food Policy, Consumer Federation of America
–Brian Ronholm, Director of Food Policy, Consumer Reports
–Robert Guenther, Chief Public Policy Officer, International Fresh Produce Association
–Ted McKinney, Chief Executive Officer, National Association of State Departments of Agriculture

–Doug Farquhar, Director of Government Affairs, National Environmental Health Association —Mitzi D. Baum, Chief Executive Officer, STOP Foodborne Illness
–DeAnn Davis, Senior Vice President, Science, Western Growers

In their letter to the leaders of key congressional committees, the 11 urged “work in a bipartisan manner to address several pressing food safety issues this year. The infant formula crisis and the Reagan-Udall Foundation’s Operational Evaluation of the FDA Human Foods program have led FDA to propose a restructuring of the human foods program” they wrote.

“While many of the proposed changes will strengthen the FDA’s ability to ensure the safety of our food supply, there are several actions Congress can take to modernize the human foods program and bring clarity and certainty to the agency’s budget.

“For example, state and local food safety agencies frequently collaborate with FDA while conducting food processing, produce, and retail inspections. They also perform key roles in identifying potential illness outbreaks, investigating illnesses, and effectuating product removals through recalls. Further, FDA often requests the use of state authority to expedite product recalls and removals, closures, embargoes, and similar actions.”

The joint letter says” Information sharing is critical to the success of this work. Historically, state and local agencies have enjoyed a good working relationship with FDA in this respect, frequently collaborating in the best interest of public health. However, in recent years, interpretations of the Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) by the FDA’s Chief Counsel have hindered this collaboration.

It says state authorities have been asked by FDA to conduct important food safety investigations, only to have critical details necessary to conduct the investigation redacted. State officials have also been asked to take immediate regulatory action at facilities based on FDA inspections, but were not provided sufficient information to pursue needed actions under state law.

The letter specifically requests that Congress include a line item detailing specific funding for state and local food safety issues in the budget allocation for FDA “to ensure they have the budgetary certainty needed to carry out their work.”

A modification to the FFDCA that would permit FDA to share important, proprietary information with state and local regulatory agencies was listed as an urgent recommendation for Congress to consider in the Reagan-Udall Foundation’s evaluation of the food program. This change would allow public health authorities to take action needed to prevent foodborne illnesses, which cause an estimated 46 million Americans to be sickened, resulting in lost productivity and medical costs estimated to be as high as $90 billion annually.

Another step Congress should take, the organizations said “to improve the efficacy of the FDA’s work and realize the goals of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is to lengthen the terms of cooperative agreements. State and local food safety organizations use cooperative agreements to carry out essential food safety functions, including inspections and training and education initiatives. The length of these agreements, currently limited to three years, detracts from their effectiveness and creates unnecessary burdens for both state and local agencies and FDA, who must review and approve the applications.”

Agencies have increasingly found that by the time a cooperative agreement has been executed, it is time to begin the lengthy process of reapplying. In addition, it’s hard to attract and retain talented staff to implement these cooperative agreements when there is so much uncertainty.

The letter said lengthening the term of cooperative agreements from three to five years would allow more continuity and provide the agency with more data as they seek to evaluate the effectiveness of each individual cooperative agreement while improving the cooperative agreements as a whole.

“Lastly, ” it said “given the important work performed by state and local food safety agencies, it is vital that they have the budgetary certainty needed to do their jobs effectively. While increased funding since the passage of FSMA has significantly enhanced state and local agencies’ capacity to fulfill their food safety mission, too often, FDA uses funds meant for state and local agencies to pursue other priorities. Cuts to several domestic inspections and last-minute shifts in budget resources make long-term planning and resource management difficult for state and local agencies. A consistent and predictable funding mechanism is needed.”

The letter was delivered late last week to the Chairmen and Ranking members of both the Committees on Appropriations and Energy and Commerce.

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