Jill A. Snowdon

In September 1998, IFT was awarded a five-year contract with the Food and Drug Administration. This has given IFT a tremendous opportunity to promote our mission—to advance the science and technology of food through the exchange of knowledge—and tap the expertise of IFT’s membership.

Under the terms of the contract, IFT is charged with providing a scientific review and analysis of issues and information on food safety, food processing, and human health. IFT is assigned task orders ranging from scientific reviews and evaluations to rapid analysis of emerging issues and evaluation of important innovations in food processing and technologies.

To fulfill the various task orders, IFT assembles Scientific and Technical Panels composed of experts in the designated topic areas. IFT draws these experts from its worldwide membership, a virtual standing army of 28,000 experts in food science and technology. Frank F. Busta, Professor Emeritus, Dept. of Food Science and Human Nutrition, University of Minnesota, is the Senior Science Advisor to the project.

IFT provides the agency with state-of-the-art information on the scientific issues in question, enabling FDA to make well-informed decisions concerning food safety regulations and policies crucial to human health. In many instances, the “answers” provided in a task order report are identified by the perennial data gaps or unknowns—research areas where information is too limited for a thorough evaluation and conclusion which then may be targeted for further investigation. Describing the scope of our current knowledge provides FDA with a science-based framework to select priorities for future research. In addition, the findings from the task order reports help to promote new technologies and advance the work of independent researchers.

Foodborne Illness. The first task order, “Kinetics of Microbial Inactivation for Alternative Food Processing Technologies,” initiated in October 1998, addressed a major food safety threat: the risks of foodborne illness caused by pathogenic microorganisms. Since foodborne illnesses affect the lives of millions of Americans every year, development of innovative strategies and technologies for controlling pathogens is a high priority for FDA. IFT was asked to provide a “comprehensive review and analysis of emerging alternative processing technologies that may potentially be used for pasteurization or sterilization.” The expert panel of 16 scientists and technologists evaluated the available data on the alternative technologies and their effectiveness in microbial population reduction, especially in relation to the pathogens of public health concern most resistant to the new technologies.

The expert panel submitted its final report to FDA in March 2000. The panel found “no absolute microbial indicator for sterility” for any of the technologies. Another finding was that high-pressure processing has a large number of potential future applications. The panel also identified key research needs for advancing the viability of alternative technologies. Among their proposed research priorities were to “evaluate the adequacy of the linear first-order survivor curve model,” “establish experimental protocol for obtaining statistically reliable kinetic parameters,” and “identify new or changing critical process factors and their effect on microbial inactivation.”

The final report was published as a special supplement to the November-December 2000 issue of Journal of Food Science. It is also available electronically on IFT’s Web site at www.ift.org, as well as on FDA’s Web site at http://vm.cfsan.fda.gov/~comm/ifttoc.html.

Ready-To-Eat Products. The second task order, “Processing Parameters Needed to Control Pathogens in Cold Smoked Fish,” assigned in October 1999, is more limited in scope. IFT was asked to assess the hazards associated with the pathogens in one particular type of food and one particular way of preparing it: cold smoked fish. The six members of the expert panel for the “fish” project have investigated the scientific literature and industry data on cold-smoked fishery products and processing plants. Research topics include everything from fishing vessel practices that may influence the risk of hazards to the use of molecular typing to identify pathogenic L. monocytogenes strains. The panel is scheduled to submit its report this month.

Fresh Produce. The third task order, “Analysis and Evaluation of Preventive Control Measures for the Control and Reduction/Elimination of Microbial Hazards on Fresh and Fresh-Cut Produce,” currently underway, covers a broader spectrum: microbial hazards in all fruits and vegetables. Topics under investigation range from current agricultural practices to the influence of packaging and packaging atmospheres on pathogen growth. The project is scheduled to conclude this summer.

Systems Model. The fourth task order, “Evaluation and Definition of Potentially Hazardous Foods,” addresses the issue of what constitutes safe storage of foods at room temperature. The classic example is pumpkin pie: to what extent can it be stored without refrigeration and guarantee that no pathogenic microorganisms can grow? The project is intended not only to evaluate scientific knowledge about the definition of potentially hazardous food, but also to develop a framework by which FDA decisions about food safety can be made. The report will provide background material for a science-based decision-making system that may be used for revising current safety codes and guidelines. The project was launched in September 2000 and is scheduled to conclude in December 2001.

Through projects such as these, IFT is harnessing the power of food science and technology to contribute to federal decision-making on food safety regulations and policies. The FDA contract gives IFT the opportunity to tap the expertise of scientists and food technologists throughout academia and the industry worldwide and to direct information at issues in food safety. IFT is working to make the new experiences with these FDA projects a springboard for attracting other projects from other funding sources on issues of nutrition, food science, and beyond. It represents another opportunity to magnify the expertise of the IFT membership.

Director, IFT Department of Science
and Technology Projects