– Opinion –
Editor’s Note: Frank Yiannas, FDA Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response
Foodborne outbreaks can affect all of us, and the United States Food and Drug Administration is at the forefront of helping protect consumers from foodborne illness. Every day, the agency takes action to help protect the country’s food supply. Our ability to do this successfully relies on continuously improving our surveillance system and providing prompt and transparent updates to consumers on outbreaks as they arise.
To achieve these goals, we recently released a Foodborne Outbreak Response Improvement Plan, an important step in improving the speed, efficiency, coordination and communication of foodborne outbreak investigations. carried out by the agency. The improvement plan builds on years of FDA work to protect consumers from foodborne illness outbreaks, working closely with state, federal, and international partners in the public and private sectors.
There is a lot at stake here. Each year, about 48 million people in the United States (1 in 6) become ill, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from food-borne illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But believe me, the statistics don’t tell the whole story. We realize that behind every number hides a real person with a real story of the painful consequences of foodborne illness.
This is why the FDA is focusing on laser prevention. We recognize that to advance food safety, we must be faster, more streamlined and more efficient at identifying and locating foods associated with disease and identifying root causes to help prevent similar epidemics in the future. We also recognize that sometimes advancing food safety means removing contaminated food from the market.
Advances in public health, such as whole genome sequencing (WGS), have improved our ability to detect foodborne epidemics and allowed us to recognize that some of the epidemics identified today may never have occurred. been detected in the past. The WGS has also enabled the agency to detect some outbreaks earlier than previously used laboratory methods and allows us to detect new and novel food vehicles of foodborne illness. These advances are good for public health. However, in a large, distributed and global food system, investigating epidemics remains difficult. As our ability to detect outbreaks improves, we must also strive to improve our investigative processes, to ensure that we are able to quickly and effectively investigate outbreaks, prevent further outbreaks. diseases, to understand the factors that allowed them to appear and to help prevent them. to reproduce.
Since the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was enacted in 2011, we have made great strides in modernizing and further protecting the United States’ food supply. This includes the recent publication of a proposed rule to improve pre-harvest agricultural water safety for products (other than sprouts) covered by the product safety rule. Contamination of water used on farms has been a factor in some epidemics, and the proposed rule, if finalized, is designed to provide practical and effective means of protecting both water sources and the environment. public health.
In 2011, the FDA also created a permanent group, the Coordinated Epidemic Response and Assessment Network (CORE), dedicated to identifying, responding to and assisting in the prevention of epidemics. multi-state related to FDA regulated dietary supplements, and cosmetic products. In October 2020, as part of our increased commitment to transparency, we began publishing the CORE Investigation Table, a weekly update that includes information on all foodborne outbreaks that the FDA responds to and provides. updates at every stage of an investigation. We aim to share information quickly and accurately during an outbreak investigation when important details, such as foods that can cause disease, may still be unknown.
The improvement plan released this month focuses on four priority areas where improvements will have the most impact: 1) product traceability, 2) root cause investigations, 3) outbreak data and 4) operational improvements.
We worked with public and private sector experts in developing this plan to gain insight on how to strengthen the agency’s response to the outbreak. As part of this process, the agency contracted with the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota to assess the FDA’s ability to support, join, or lead outbreak investigations in multiple states, as well as providing recommendations for improvement, which were provided to the agency in a recently published report. The new improvement plan reflects our commitment to bending the curve of foodborne illness in the United States, a primary goal embodied in the FDA’s new era of smarter food safety.
In 2019 we announced the New Era of Smarter Food Safety initiative and in July 2020 we published a plan outlining our goals for the next decade. The New Era initiatives build on what we have achieved in our implementation of the FSMA by leveraging the use of new and emerging technologies, tools and approaches. An example of work in progress includes the proposed food traceability rule. The requirements proposed in the rule would help the FDA quickly and effectively identify recipients of certain foods in order to prevent or mitigate outbreaks of foodborne illness. We believe this rule is a bridge to this new era of a safer, more digital and traceable food system.
Conducting timely and effective investigations of foodborne outbreaks is a team effort that involves collaboration at the federal, state, and local levels. At the FDA, we understand that we have an important role to play. We have a dedicated team of public health professionals who work tirelessly, day and night, to make it happen. But it is difficult to find the root cause of an epidemic given, among other things, the complexity of our food supply and the lack of transparency in the supply chain.
The FDA is committed to strengthening food safety, and we believe American consumers deserve to be confident in the safety of the foods they eat for themselves and serve their families. As we implement the goals outlined in the Foodborne Epidemic Response Improvement Plan, the New Era of Smarter Food Security, and continue to implement the FSMA, we will be transparent every step of the way. The American consumer deserves no less.