— OPINION —
As 2024 unfolds, there are ongoing stories that will continue to take shape, including one that impacts everyone’s daily life in the United States.
The reorganization of the Food and Drug Administration’s human foods program began in 2023 with the appointment of Jim Jones to be the agency’s first-ever deputy commissioner for human foods. Jones is a 30-year veteran of the Environmental Protection Agency.
FDA Commissioner Robert Califf created the new deputy commissioner post after internal and external reviews showed the food side of the FDA had no transparent chain of command and other deficiencies. The FDA began studying those deficiencies in May 2022 after Califf was grilled by a congressional committee investigating the infant formula debacle.
This year, Jones will continue to review the problems under his jurisdiction. He has begun to address them by changing the names and responsibilities of some offices — the Office of Regulatory Affairs is now the Office of Inspections and Investigations. He says that will strengthen the FDA’s field-based oversight program.
The proposed reorganization of the FDA also includes creating new offices and shifting responsibilities from some offices to others.
While the changes may sound like Jones and Califf are merely shuffling the deck of bureaucracy within the agency’s food operations, I am hopeful that the changes will make a difference.
Jones has consolidated some operations and established a clear chain of command so that office directors under his purview will no longer have to look sideways to finish their work.
Hopefully, Jones will also address problems that seem like small details but, in actuality, can cause big problems. One issue that came to light during the infant formula crisis of 2022 was that a crucial whistleblower document was caught up in a mailroom snafu and didn’t reach the appropriate people until months later. That document outlined significant breaches of food safety protocols and regulations at an infant formula production plant that later caused the plant’s closure and recall of millions of pounds of powdered formula.
Also expected in 2024
The 24th year of the 21st Century also holds food safety dangers that have plagued U.S. residents since the beginning of the 20th Century and longer.
Foodborne illness outbreaks will continue — full stop. There is no doubt more people will become ill, and some will die merely because they ate food. This is a fact. Pathogens contaminate everything from meat to produce to ice cream.
The good news is that food producers can mitigate contamination. The bad news is that most of them won’t take steps to protect consumers. For example, food producers could initiate test and hold procedures to help avoid selling contaminated food. Most producers don’t want to do this because time is money, and illnesses are less likely to break the bank.
Traceability measures could also be put into place. Modern technology makes this a mere detail of operating a business, but most food producers and sellers just haven’t taken the time or money to put traceable information on their products. They would, of course, have to have a computer to track that information, but who doesn’t have computers in their business operations at this point? Better traceability could help decrease the number of sick people in outbreaks and help reduce the number of products in recalls.
Food producers and handlers could also make sure their physical operations are clean. If this sounds like a no-brainer, it is. But, money again rears its ugly head, and operators too often cut corners when keeping things clean.
Some consumers believe that government inspections take care of such things. Still, the simple truth is that public health operations from the local level up to the top federal agencies don’t have enough people to do the job. For example, in many local health jurisdictions, the goal is to inspect each food facility once every three years. All too often, that goal is not met because of staff shortages.
Another given for 2024 is that more people will fall ill because they drink unpasteurized, raw milk. And more children will become sick because their parents gave them unpasteurized milk.
This is fact, not fiction. The fiction comes into the equation when raw milk proponents say raw milk is not contaminated and that it cannot possibly harm you because people have been drinking raw milk for centuries.
The fact is that the advent of pasteurization has been saving lives for a century. With today’s product testing and whole genome sequencing of pathogens, it has been proven that raw milk is more often than not contaminated with dangerous bacteria and viruses.
Many states have laws against selling raw milk, and there is a federal ban on selling it across state lines. These are examples of how the government works to protect people, including the most vulnerable people — children.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that the number of outbreaks linked to raw milk has increased. From 1998 through 2018, 202 outbreaks and 2,645 outbreak-associated illnesses occurred from drinking raw milk. Areas where raw milk was legally sold had 3.2 times more outbreaks than areas where the sale of raw milk was illegal.
Once again, there is good news. All that is needed for illnesses traced to raw milk to end is for people to stop drinking it. Unlike food, people can live without raw milk, so the consumer has as much burden as the producer.
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