The Thursday Town Hall at the 2022 Food Safety Summit centered on a conversation with top regulators and advisory groups about the key issues, updates, and initiatives happening within their organizations. In true town hall fashion, the audience was invited to participate in a robust Q&A session—moderated by Gary Ades, Ph.D., President of G&L Consulting Group and Chair of the Food Safety Summit Educational Advisory Board—with the regulatory panelists.

The panelists included Rob Tauxe, M.D., M.P.H., Director, Division of Foodborne, Waterborne, and Environmental Diseases (DFWED) and the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases (NCEZID) at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); Steve Mandernach, Executive Director at the Association of Food and Drug Officials (AFDO); Sandra Eskin, Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA); and Frank Yiannis, Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

 

CDC Advances in Pathogen Monitoring

Dr. Tauxe spoke briefly about the fluctuation of foodborne illness cases prior to, during, and after the COVID-19 pandemic surges in 2020 and 2021. He noted that many people did not visit medical facilities and doctor's offices in person during the pandemic, due to fears of catching COVID-19 and lockdown restrictions. Although the data from these years is still being analyzed, public health surveillance systems, such as PulseNet, were able to capture an abundance of information.

Recent advances in public health and food safety relate to the possibilities offered by whole genome sequencing (WGS). Salmonella serotypes are now being detected from sequencing, and antibiotic resistance is being identified more easily. Also, reoccurring, emerging, and persisting strains (also known as REP strains) are being identified in particular reservoirs, enabling scientists to target them for mitigation efforts. Later in 2023, CDC will launch a new public platform for pathogen surveillance data, starting with Salmonella reporting for different states. Other pathogens will be added to the dashboard at later dates.

 

AFDO Areas of Focus

Mr. Mandernach discussed three areas in which AFDO is working to improve food safety, including modernization of recalls, enabling an integrated food safety system, and improving retail food safety. "Recalls are a public health event, and we need to focus the entire regulatory community on these public health events. They're not regulatory events. We need to get that recalled food off the market so that people don't continue to get sick," Mr. Mandernach said. "Why do we have a different recall system between FDA and USDA? It makes no sense." The AFDO Executive Director also opined that state and local health departments should not need to scramble to contact federal regulators while also trying to work with industry to pull recalled food off of shelves. "It should be one phone call—one notice issued nationally," he said. "That's it."

Mr. Mandernach then spoke about the need to unite the different federal food programs under one authority. "Deputy Commissioner Yiannis does not have authority over the food program in its fullness, and that is a mistake," Mr. Mandernach said. "Our public deserves that empowered leader who can really impact and move that entire organization forward." Mr. Mandernach also explained that there are significant changes happening in retail food safety. Measurement of food safety is under scrutiny, and retail inspections are in the process of being improved and standardized across jurisdictions. Another AFDO initiative is a new course offering on root cause analysis.

 

USDA Takes New Approach to Salmonella in Poultry

Deputy Under Secretary Eskin spoke about the "Healthy People Goals" and the use of these metrics to stay on track. Unfortunately, national rates of Salmonella infections have failed to meet the Healthy People Illness Goals for both 2010 and 2020, showing no meaningful reduction in infections over the past two decades.

"We know it will take reductions across the entire food chain to meet the Healthy People Goal and reduce Salmonella illnesses," Ms. Eskin said. The majority of Salmonella infections come from eating poultry, although Salmonella infections from processed food products have decreased. Ms. Eskin noted that USDA is promoting initiatives for controlling Salmonella in poultry, from the entry of birds into processing facilities to modifying standards for poultry products.

USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is also addressing concerns over per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), including identification of PFAS in food and water, better defining "normal" levels of PFAS in commodities, and studying PFAS contamination sites. Ms. Eskin stressed that inter-agency cooperation, including with FDA, is being leveraged to address the PFAS problem.

 

FDA Modernizes its Efforts, Advances Legislation

Deputy Commissioner Yiannis underlined the need to bend the curve of foodborne illness in the U.S. and around the world. "The food system is rapidly evolving to meet the needs of the moment and the needs of the consumer in modern times," he said. "But food safety is also evolving to meet the needs of these modern times, and it's helping create a safer, smarter, and more resilient and sustainable food system."

FDA is using more modern approaches, including a more digital, traceable, transparent food system, to create a safer food system, Mr. Yiannis said. He also reviewed several FDA initiatives and upcoming pieces of legislation that are expected to be finalized this year, including the Proposed Food Traceability Rule, the Agricultural Water Standard, and the Foodborne Outbreak Response Improvement Plan. The Proposed Food Traceability Rule, established by the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and part of the New Era of Smarter Food Safety, is set to be finalized in November and will create a traceable path for food from the farm to the consumer. Mr. Yiannis also stressed the importance of data sharing, collaboration, and mutual trust to achieve a safer and smarter food chain, together.

 

Food Safety Culture is Key

During the audience Q&A session, attendees directed several questions about food safety culture at Deputy Commissioner Yiannis, including one attendee from a health department in Ireland. The EU recently decided to regulate food safety culture as part of its food safety legal requirements.

"You can have the best policies in the world, but if people don't put them into action, then they're completely useless. [Food safety culture is] the hardest and most important stuff, and we have to figure it out," Mr. Yiannis asserted. Just having a CEO's signature on a piece of paper saying that a company has a food safety culture in place is insufficient, the Deputy Commissioner said. "We have to go further and understand what a food safety culture really is. I don't think you can regulate or legislate it like in Europe, but you can understand it and observe it in action."

"[Food safety culture] is really about behavior; it's how your actions demonstrate what you believe and what you're doing," Deputy Under Secretary Eskin added. "I also don't think you can regulate or legislate it—no offense to Europe—but it's still something that needs to be in place."

"You don't want people to be doing food safety just because they're going to be held accountable," Mr. Yiannis commented. "You want them to do it because it's part of the food safety culture and because they care—not just because the inspectors are there. You want people to be responsible, as well as accountable."

The 2022 Food Safety Summit is taking place in person at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, Illinois from May 9–12. Stay tuned for more conference coverage!