Science Policy For All

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Food Safety: From Farm to Fork

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By clarita on Morguefile. Used with permission.

By K. Shmueli

Food-borne diseases, such as Salmonella or Norovirus, sicken 1 in 6 Americans each year and kill more than 3000, all on a background of $1 trillion USA food expenditure. The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), signed into law in January 2011, aims to reduce these statistics by improving the safety of food throughout its journey from farm to fork. The FSMA shifts the emphasis of US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) efforts from response to prevention of food-borne illness via risk-assessment and monitoring of the food supply. It also places much of this preventive burden on food suppliers: the Act tasks them with identifying and evaluating “known or reasonably foreseeable hazards” associated with food facilities and with implementing preventive controls to minimize those hazards. Small companies and farms selling less than $500,000 worth of food in a year will be exempt.

Key challenges of implementing the FSMA include a lack of staffing at the FDA, which has approximately 170 scientists, a food inspection force of ~2800 nationwide, and at least 57,000 food manufacturers requiring periodic inspection. There are also tight timelines. The FDA has been granted mandatory recall powers immediately and has 1-2 years to publish detailed guidance, standards and regulations, for example for science-based hazard analysis. The ultimate limitation is the estimated $1.4 billion cost of the FSMA mandates over five years. The $370 million increase in the FDA 2011 budget over 2010 is less than half the increase requested to enable the FDA to begin full FSMA delivery.

The complexity of modern food supply chains will also make FSMA implementation difficult. Consider a contaminated supermarket salad: the ingredients may all be grown in different places. The components could take different transportation and handling routes through various storage facilities and a processing plant before the packaged salad finally reaches the supermarket shelf. To add to the complexity, the US food protection system operates at both state and federal levels. It is split between multiple government agencies in addition to the FDA, including the US Department of Agriculture which is responsible for regulating the safety of meat, poultry and egg products. The FSMA has not addressed calls for increased coordination and consolidation of the federal food safety system. However, the Act does take into account the global nature of the food supply: it gives the FDA new tools and responsibilities to ensure that importers verify that their foreign suppliers have adequate preventive controls in place. The FSMA even mandates “building capacity of foreign governments with respect to food safety”. This may be a tall order in a world of economically motivated adulteration such as the addition of melamine to milk powder or animal feed.

With limited funds and in this context of complex global food chains, the FDA must surely be asking where it can be most effective in deploying food safety policy. Which foods should be tested, how, where and when in the supply chain to minimize risk? This is where research into low-cost, rapid, highly sensitive and specific food assays is needed and tools to assess critical points in the food supply chain are essential. An example is the Food and Agriculture Sector Criticality Tool (FASCAT) developed by the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) National Center for Food Protection and Defense to help identify crucial components of the food infrastructure and improve reporting to the DHS.

So how will the FSMA affect us? It seems inconceivable that these provisions will not raise the already rapidly increasing cost of food. The record-keeping and monitoring requirements of the Act are also likely to stimulate vertical integration of the food supply, following the lead of large fast-food companies who can already trace where and when the potatoes in each box of french fries were harvested and processed. Clearly there is no detection strategy that can completely eliminate food-borne sickness or guarantee that no contamination is present, but will all this extra legislation lead to safer food? We’ll have to wait for the next decade of statistics and hope that the FSMA hastens the downward trend (20% reduction in food-borne illnesses) seen over the past 10 years.


Written by sciencepolicyforall

May 4, 2011 at 12:15 pm

Posted in Essays

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