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The Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Regulatory Affairs (ORA) has been encouraging state food safety regulatory agencies to establish, or provide support for, regularly scheduled food safety task force meetings. ORA, the lead office for all FDA field activities, coordinates the program aspects of FDA’s contracts with state and local counterpart agencies and FDA’s emergency preparedness and civil defense programs.
The purpose of these meetings is to discuss and resolve issues at the state and local levels, such as outbreak investigations and coordination, information sharing and data collection, uniform regulatory standards, communications and education, state/local laboratory operations and coordination, and adoption/implementation of FDA’s Food Code. ORA can provide one-year Task Force Conference Grant awards or fund meetings for up to three years. Details are available at www.fda.gov/ora/fed_state/food_safety/default.htm.
The National Food Safety System project—designed to have federal, state, and local government organizations work together to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the nation’s food safety system—was the product of the 1998 “50-State meeting” and subsequent multi-agency steering committee and work groups. Federal organizations involved included the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, FDA, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Environmental Protection Agency.
Subsequent to suggestions provided by the NFSS project in 2000, FDA’s State Training Branch developed a meeting model to be used by the 39 states that have established partnership agreements with the agency. In 2002, approximately 12 states filed reports documenting their progress and achievements. Although other reports may be pending, one would hope that this important endeavor is not losing momentum.
This is an admirable undertaking by FDA and serves to establish a crucial entity which is pivotal to the effectiveness of the food safety system, particularly at the state and local levels. The state task forces usually include representation from local and state regulatory agencies, academia, and stakeholders from the food and foodservice industries and consumers. Bringing together individuals with diverse perspectives but with a common need to improve the safety of our food is meritorious, but mammoth in scope and likely not achievable without some federal intervention.
Unfortunately, financial support provided by FDA is nominal and mostly for startup costs. Ideally, stakeholders will find ways to support their food safety activities; but in these times of budget shortfalls, there is a need to promote other innovative means to sustain task forces once they are in place. Here are some possibilities:
• Provide grants that match funds provided by stakeholders, i.e., state/local agencies and/or industrial or consumer groups.
• Encourage colleagues in academia to apply for funding to support integrated approaches for food safety.
• Have FDA establish links with other federal agencies to initiate a pool of funds that could target task forces to develop innovative ideas for support. Other federal agencies, so far not included, who have a vested interest in food safety should be approached for potential collaboration and assistance in this venture, e.g., Occupational Safety and Health Administration, U.S. Dept. of Transportation, etc.
• Have FDA partner with industrial and consumer organizations that could support more work on food safety.
• Coordinate with global groups working on the food safety system, e.g., FAO/WHO via Codex Alimentarius, because of our increasing reliance on importation of foods.
• Establish state centers charged with responsibility to coordinate, collect, and collate foodborne illness data and distribute the data to those who have use for such information. Land-grant institutions and other universities could house such centers linked to other useful entities, such as Cooperative Extension and Agricultural Experimental Stations.
Ensuring the safety of the food supply is complex. These initial steps by the federal agencies—working more collaboratively with one another to improve coordination of local and state involvement and multi-state food safety activities—are fitting, ambitious, and advocated by several recent reports, namely, the 1998 National Academy of Sciences report, “Ensuring Safe Food from Production to Consumption,” and the interagency report, “Food Safety—From Farm to Table.”
It is crucial that we keep these efforts active and not lose momentum. Coordination among the federal, state, and local agencies and stakeholders is particularly pressing at this time because of concerns about potential bioterrorism attacks via the food supply.
by STANLEY T. OMAYE
Professor, Dept. of Nutrition and
the Environmental Sciences & Health Graduate Program
University of Nevada, Reno