Source: USA Today

The International Food Protection Training Institute in Battle Creek, Mich., has helped train thousands of inspectors, and its workload is about it get even greater.

WASHINGTON — Food makers, including Kellogg and Post, made Battle Creek, Mich., the cereal city decades ago.

But the city is attracting increased federal attention — and funding — for one of the hottest and most important issues on the planet these days: food safety.

The International Food Protection Training Institute (IFPTI), now part of the Global Food Protection Institute (GFPI) in Battle Creek, has helped train thousands of inspectors and worked with officials from China, Turkey and elsewhere to improve food safety.

The institute sent trainers to the Gulf of Mexico region in 2010 to show officials there how to determine whether seafood caught after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was safe. And now it's beginning a partnership with Michigan State University to improve food safety in Saudi Arabia. The federal Food and Drug Administration awarded it a grant for $1.3 million a year for five years beginning in 2011 to help train more inspectors.

"The institute has become more than they ever envisioned," said President and CEO Julia Bradsher, referring to the people at the civic group Battle Creek Unlimited and the Kellogg Foundation, which helped fund the institute's creation as a way to generate economic activity in the city and capitalize on the food industry expertise nearby.

A staff of three has grown to 18 regular and contract employees, plus a nationwide network of nearly 100 instructors.

More impressive is the reach of the institute, which may be the only one of its kind in the U.S.: It has classes being taught from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Helena, Mont.

A related program under the GFPI is funding and promoting new food safety technologies, such as handheld equipment developed by nanoRETE in Lansing, that can test for pathogens in food in about an hour. And another initiative brings together regulatory, academic, medical and industry experts to talk about issues from transportation to allergies.

And business could soon be even brisker with regulations for the Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law early last year, expected any time.

The act will trigger a series of new requirements on food manufacturers, large and small; many of whom had escaped federal attention until now. The institute has been working with food industry alliances to prepare officials for the coming changes.

"It could impact 200,000 firms," said Gerald Wojtala, executive director of the IFPTI and a former deputy director in the Michigan Department of Agriculture's food and dairy division. Each of those firms may want to have one or more people responsible for making sure those regulations are met, he said. And the number would be even larger adding in manufacturers overseas that import into the U.S.

"There's no way you're going to bring all those people to one place," Wojtala said. "We train the trainers" who will then go out and train to certified standards.

IFPTI will also keep track of who has been certified and who has not, and coordinate course requirements and continuing education, while also doing what it set out to do in 2009: standardize the training that local, state and federal food safety officials receive.

'A food safety culture'

Since its founding in 2009, the institute has trained more than 2,300 inspectors, regulators, researchers and analysts in more than a dozen courses, touching the basics of inspections, labeling, meat and poultry processing and more.

Driving much of that interest have been growing concerns about food safety. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in six Americans — or about 48 million people — get sick and 3,000 people die each year of food-borne diseases. For instance, a listeria outbreak in cantaloupe in 2011 killed 30 people. And a 2008

salmonella outbreak in peanuts was linked to more than a hundred illnesses nationwide.

David Mackay, former president and CEO of Kellogg — which is not directly affiliated with the Kellogg Foundation, though the foundation is its largest shareholder — testified before Congress in 2009 on the salmonella scare. Part of his testimony called for the creation of the IFPTI as a way to ensure that inspectors are trained "against widely recognized food quality and safety standards."

The FDA — which is responsible for most food other than meat, poultry and egg products, which come under the U.S. Department of Agriculture — has grown over the last decade to rely more on contract state inspectors, though that trend has reversed somewhat recently.

"You have all these people across the country willing and able to do good work. (But) to make that effective, they have to understand and inspect to FDA standards, and that requires training," said David Acheson, a former associate FDA commissioner and a member of the GFPI's board. "It's like every good idea: It seems like a no-brainer after the fact."

At the Grocery Manufacturers Association in Washington, a trade group representing about 300 companies in the packaged-goods industry, officials have been working with the institute to align standards. In September, they took part in a conference on food allergies.

"It's creating a food safety culture — it becomes part of your culture," said Sue Estes, global food safety manager for PepsiCo, who also has worked with the institute.

In October, GFPI, the umbrella organization over the training institute, hosted a conference on food transportation issues: Mark Moorman, Kellogg's senior director of global regulatory science, gave a talk on the "Things That Keep Me Up at Night," which covered a wide array of topics including the evolving means of detecting problems, the age and issues with transport trucks and social media responses.

Individual companies like Kellogg have standards, but they are sometimes lacking industry-wide. And that can be a problem because food is an integrated industry.

Bradsher used the example of wooden pallets.

"No one really owns them, per se," she said. "So you may have raw chicken stacked up on a pallet, and tomorrow it's going to be fresh fruits and vegetables. It's a real problem."

Critics raise questions

In many ways, the U.S. industry is considered the safest in the world, and technology has improved food safety. But with food allergies said to be on the upswing and the global food market more intertwined than ever, concerns abound.

Some critics, like Doug Powell, a food scientist at Kansas State University, said standardizing training for inspectors would have a limited effect. Ultimately, it has to be more about liability for the manufacturers, no matter where along the food chain illness breaks out.

As for the modernization act, Powell doesn't think it's going to have any effect, in part because the FDA doesn't "have the resources to implement it fully."

Wojtala said it's true that the manufacturers have to take the primary role in a market where 90 percent of the food supply is privately owned. But inspection — and standardizing what a good inspection means in a country where those standards may not be clear across different agencies — is still vitally important, he said.

"Everybody has a role to play," he said.

That includes consumers, he said, especially at the holiday when there are lots of distractions while cooking, and lots of people visiting as you're putting together a holiday meal.

"Whenever you get groups of people together, you have the transmission of viruses," he said. "It's an important time to really be washing your hands."


Sweeping change

Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act, the most sweeping reform of food safety laws in about 70 years, in 2010. Here are some of the provisions it includes, the Food and Drug Administration says:

Preventive controls: Requires food facilities to evaluate hazards in their operations and implement measures to prevent contamination. Also requires the FDA to establish standards for the safe production and harvesting of fruits and vegetables.

Inspection and compliance: Concentrates inspections based on the risk associated with certain products.

Imported food safety: Gives the FDA greater oversight of food products coming into the U.S. An estimated 15 percent of the U.S. food supply is imported, including 60 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables and 80 percent of seafood. The FDA can refuse admission of imported food from a facility or country where FDA inspections have been blocked.

Response: For the first time, the FDA has mandatory recall authority for all food products.