These are times of stark contrast for improving food safety. In an age of unprecedented technological accomplishment, with “gee whiz” gadgets in every palm, we face invisible terrors from newly emerged infectious agents that wriggle past our safety shields.
Many of these microbes are delivered by food and water, yet our pickers, washers, filters, sprayers, wraps, conveyors, and gleaming refrigerators fail to intercept their arrival on the fork. Faced with staggering lawsuits and potential loss of brand value—never mind human illness and death—food processors seek more-advanced and -effective technologies to ensure that disease-causing agents are not piggy-backing on their foods.
Joining the quest for advanced food safety technologies is the Riley Memorial Foundation (RMF), a nonprofit foundation founded in 1985 to honor Charles Valentine Riley, a distinguished scientist and administrator at the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture in the late 1800s. RMF seeks to facilitate the development and implementation of wise, long-term policies and programs in the “complete agricultural system” that includes food, fiber, forestry, and environmental resources.
On December 13–14, 1999, RMF convened a work conference of 135 top-level personnel from government, academia, industry, and consumer groups to identify and remove barriers to the adoption of technologies to reduce foodborne illness.
All participants expressed a strong desire for better communications. A spirit of constructive curiosity and candor prevailed as participants sought better understanding of the processes that lead to new technologies, the intricacies of the food system, and the maze of government policies, regulations, and jurisdictions. Government representatives acknowledged their limited understanding of how the food system works and what drives the quest for new technologies. Industry representatives admitted being baffled by agency protocols, regulatory and Congressional constraints, and operational jurisdictions. Those in academia were sometimes unaware of the practical or regulatory limitations affecting the development or application of new technologies. From the outset, the conference was poised to foster good communications among its seasoned participants.
The common ground underlying the development of new technology was explained in discussions and presentations of case studies. The process begins with fundamental science, the wellspring of all technological advancement. Scientific knowledge is brought to bear on ideas for solving problems. If rudimentary facts are missing, research must first fill the gaps. For concepts to move to applications, proof that the idea will work is needed. Thus, creative scientists who understand both the science and its application are critical to the development process.
Once it is established in the laboratory that an idea will work, models, prototypes, and pilot studies are undertaken. If the ideas are feasible, economists join the process to determine whether further technology development makes economic sense. If the answer is yes, technology development proceeds, and proof of efficacy and efficiency ensues. It is here that consumer involvement could make meaningful contributions to the development process and alert developers to potential consumer responses. Developers of technology are sometimes unsure about how and when to invite consumer participation. Wary developers may be reluctant to invite potential opponents to the table. Skepticism about consumers’ understanding of science and technology further restrains technologists from reaching out.
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Once evidence is in hand that a new technology works as intended, regulatory approval may be sought. Some technologies never make it past this point; others may be approved and not adopted. Still others may not be adopted because the tide of social or economic action works against it. One can’t help wondering whether early involvement of consumers in the development of food irradiation and agricultural biotechnology might have made acceptance of these technologies less controversial. These examples have taught us that the need for a technology, the underlying complexities of the issues it addresses, and latent public concerns must be addressed openly, if the public is to give its support.
The conference made it clear that certain factors enhance the adoption of new technologies and that these warrant nurturing. Facilitative circumstances include:
• Enhanced Understanding. Everyone agreed that when all affected parties have a good understanding of the need for a new or novel technology, the development process, its safety, its pros and cons, and the alternatives, the more likely it is that a new technology will be accepted by all. In particular, the earlier the involvement of consumers and better understanding among industry, government, and consumers of their respective contributions, the more successful technology development becomes.
• Identification of the Source of the Technologies. Technology development is driven primarily by need. Information about why a new technology is needed, what currently exists, what is missing, what developments are “in the works,” and what the likelihood of successful adoption is contributes to success.
• Expanded Collaborations. Plenty of current, technology-focused consortia have proved that collaborations work. The conference drew on case studies for fruitful outcomes from multi-sector collaborations in food technology and urged that this avenue be vigorously pursued.
What are the most important barriers to the adoption of advanced technologies? This prickly question generated a host of experiences and queries with useful suggestions for overcoming the obstacles. Among the most important barriers were:
• Incomplete communications and lack of a complete inventory of publicly funded research.
• Insufficient involvement of industry with government and academia in the establishment of standards.
• Inadequate involvement of industry in consortia that operate pilot facilities.
• Reluctance of industry to set aside proprietary interests and take risks.
• Lack of harmonization of standards and regulations and the application of principles of operation and policy.
• Overlapping agency jurisdictions and multiple agency controls.
• Unavailability of lead persons and insufficient in-house expertise within regulatory agencies.
• Too little science-based consumer and advocacy research.
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It is one thing to grumble about the hurdles. It is another matter to devise strategies to eliminate or reduce barriers and make others easier to accommodate. For example, working within the existing legislative and regulatory frameworks may leave little wiggle room; identifying or assigning key agency personnel as point persons for key issues might go far toward improving communications and understanding how best for innovators to meet regulatory requirements. Learning how to navigate among overlapping agency jurisdictions at the beginning of a development or review process might save months of futile communications. Other suggestions included proactive steps among stakeholders to encourage the adoption of technologies, provision of incentives for industry to develop new technologies, and finding ways to increase consumer acceptance.
Participants proposed specific ideas to encourage the adoption of technologies:
• Expand consortia of government, academia, and industry to obtain broad-based inputs and to share development costs.
• Increase the involvement of industry with government and academia to establish standards early in the development process.
• Harmonize regulations between federal and state agencies.
• Include consumer groups as partners rather than antagonists.
As participants interacted, many opportunities to expand communications and collaborations emerged. The conference applauded the recognition of and funding given to food safety through the efforts of the President’s Council on Food Safety, the National Science and Technology Council, and the Joint Institute for Food Safety Research. The effectiveness of existing collaborations and consortia was cited as good reason to focus on such models and establish other consortia. The example of multiple research centers, government, and industry collaborating on the aseptic processing of particulate foods, presented during the conference as a case study, illustrated the usefulness of consortia.
As ideas evolved, conference participants envisioned followup activities that would continue the momentum and productivity of the conference. All agreed that there is considerable potential for enhancing the development and adoption of advanced technologies to reduce foodborne illness, if ways can be found to:
• Assist small companies, independent contractors, and specialized businesses to communicate and develop working relationships with the mainstream food system.
• Improve technical communications among leading federal agencies, including the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, Defense, Energy, and Commerce; National Science Foundation; Environmental Protection Agency; and National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
• Enhance communications between federal and state regulators.
• Involve consumer advocates early in the technology development process.
• Consider the risks of not adopting new technologies as well as of adopting them.
Conferences such as this one are indeed key to continued progress in removing barriers to the adoption of advanced technologies to improve food safety.
by Gilbert A. Leveille, a Past President of IFT, a Past President of the American Society for Nutritional Sciences, and a Past President and current member of the Executive Committee for RMF, is Worldwide Vice President for Scientific and Regulatory Affairs, McNeil Consumer Healthcare, 7050 Camp Hill Rd., Fort Washington, PA 19034. The full proceedings of the conference are available on the Internet at www.nal.usda.gov/fsrio/advancetechfbi.html .