Food Safety

Who Will Help Build Food Safety Partnerships?

by Mike Smith, specialist, food safety program

APHL is holding the 13th Annual PulseNet Update Meeting in Utah this week. In the spirit of partnership, this year’s meeting is being held in conjunction with the 5th Annual OutbreakNet Meeting. Holding these meetings together is allowing professionals in the fields of epidemiology and laboratory science to exchange ideas and information as we improve a U.S. food safety system that some believe is faltering.

Michael Taylor, the new senior advisor to the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, presented the keynote address. In his speech, Taylor emphasized the need to “construct a whole new level of partnership to prevent foodborne illness.” He went on to state that “it must be a partnership that empowers the full range of people working on food safety at federal, state and local levels to succeed in their common cause of preventing foodborne illness.” Taylor stressed that these partnerships will be key if the prevention-focused vision for food safety in the U.S. set forth by FDA and Congress is to be successful. It’s going to take adequately-funded public health professionals across a range of disciplines at the federal, state and local levels working in harmony to effectively implement and execute FDA’s public health prevention vision. Now that there seems to be a real opportunity for change, let’s hope that our lawmakers provide more than just lip service to support this ambitious endeavor.

To highlight the theme of partnerships that Taylor so eloquently spoke about in his speech, I would like to close with the following analogy. The current U.S. food safety system is a very complex machine much like the engine of a car. And like the engine of a car, the U.S. food safety system consists of many pieces working in unison. If even one piece of the food safety engine malfunctions, the whole machine breaks down. In the past, when these pieces have broken, the lawmakers and leaders of this country have been too eager to replace the needed precision components with discount parts. Worse yet, it seems they neglected the maintenance of the machine altogether. As evidenced by foodborne illness outbreaks over the past 15 years, we can’t afford to let this machine falter any longer. It’s time that we start investing in the whole machine, maintaining it so that we don’t continue to experience these costly, and far too often deadly, outbreaks. The opportunity for change is now. Are the lawmakers ready to take this issue seriously? For the sake of this country’s well-being, let’s hope so.

1 Comment

  • Great analogy and unfortunately all too true! The great part about this meeting was that the issues were discussed from public health (lab, epi, and regulatory), industry, and consumer perspectives (a particularly moving and emotional presentation was given by Barbara Kowalcyk whose son died from E. coli O157:H7 infection). All three perspectives were represented in a mock-outbreak exercise held during the combined session and there was a coordinated effort to include both current practices and efforts to improve outbreak detection and response. Several themes were consistent through-out the meeting;

    1. Food safety professionals are struggling with issues of resource limitations and workforce reductions in these difficult economic times.
    2. The amount of data being uploaded into the PulseNet database has increased dramatically over the past few years and now results in approximately 300 clusters per year being identified and investigated. These include many cross-jurisdictional investigations which the current public health infrastructure was not designed for. The current public health system infrastructure was developed when foods were not distributed as widely and thus were based around the local "church supper" outbreak model. While this is the most effective model for taking local public health action, it tends to complicate and slow multistate or multi-jurisdictional investigations.
    3. There is a growing proportion of non-human (food, environment, and animal) isolate data in the PulseNet database which is stressing the importance of rapid communication & standardization of data sharing among public health and food safety regulatory laboratories. While subtyping data in the network is highly standardized, there could be higher standardization of demographic data from non-human isolates for more rapid assessment of the prevalence and diversity of specific subtypes.

    Hopefully as public health laboratorians we can use Mr. Taylor's comments and the discussion at the meeting to find ways to strengthen our response to foodborne disease in these challenging times.

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