Thursday morning at the Food Safety Summit, top U.S. food safety regulators and public health officials took the stage for an interactive Town Hall discussion. The Town Hall was moderated by Gillian Kelleher, CEO of Kelleher Consultants LLC, and panelists included James (Jim) Jones, Deputy Commissioner for Human Foods at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA); Sandra Eskin, J.D., Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA); Robert Tauxe, M.D., M.P.H., Director, DFWED, NCEZID, DDID at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); and Steven Mandernach, J.D., Executive Director of the Association of Food and Drug Officials (AFDO).

The event began with introductions from Stacy Atchison, Publisher of Food Safety Magazine, Gillian, and Angela Nardone, COO of Share-ify, a Gold Sponsor of the Summit. Gillian invited each panelist to present an overview of important work and areas of interest at their respective organizations, to be followed by a live question-and-answer opportunity for attendees. But first, Gillian recognized Dr. Tauxe for his 41-year career at CDC, which will come to a close in June when he retires. To thank him for being a part of the Summit Town Hall for the past nine years, and for his work in protecting public health, Gillian presented Robert with a plaque.

FDA: HPAI, Reorganization, and More

Jim was the first panelist to speak. He touched upon the ongoing Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) outbreak, saying, “Usually when FDA is all-consumed by something, the public is, too… but with HPAI, it feels like we [FDA] are getting our arms around it in a way that the public doesn’t feel the need to be ‘all over it.’” He discussed FDA’s efforts to test the milk supply for the presence of HPAI, which, so far, has demonstrated that pasteurized milk is safe.

Additionally, Jim mentioned that the finalization of FDA’s reorganization of its Human Foods Program is near. He is confident that the new, unified Human Foods Program will be implemented by the start of Fiscal Year 2025. Other points Jim addressed included the implementation of the Agricultural Water Final Rule and the Food Traceability Final Rule. He shared that, as distributors have expressed challenges with complying with the Food Traceability Final Rule, FDA will hold a roundtable event in June to bring together regulated stakeholders and solutions providers. Finally, Jim addressed food chemical safety and FDA’s work to revamp its post-market review program for food chemicals so that it is systematic and predictable.

USDA: Salmonella as an Adulterant

Sandra began her presentation by remarking, “What does it mean to be responsible for food safety? It means we must do everything we can to make sure that products that make people sick do not enter commerce.” At present, one of the most visible ways in which USDA is working to prevent unsafe foods from reaching consumers is by declaring Salmonella an adulterant in breaded, stuffed, not-ready-to-eat (NRTE) chicken products. These products are being targeted because of their association with a disproportionate number of foodborne illnesses in comparison to other poultry products. Sandra shared that, since 1998, fourteen outbreaks have been linked to these products, partly because consumers do not always understand that the products are NRTE and must be cooked accordingly.

Sandra then asked, “But what about the rest of the poultry supply?” and shared that USDA has written a proposal, which involves both rulemaking and determinations, that would make Salmonella an adulterant in other raw chicken products. According to Sandra, USDA research has determined that the problem with Salmonella is not whether it is in the products; rather, it is more relevant how much and which serotypes of the pathogen are present. With this in mind, USDA hopes to release a rule about Salmonella as an adulterant in other poultry products in the coming months.

Finally, Sandra briefly touched upon USDA’s work to update the requirements for using the “Product of USA” label, as well as to update the guidelines for substantiating animal-raising claims and “raised without antibiotics” claims. USDA is currently testing cattle destined for the antibiotics-free market to determine how to move forward with “antibiotic-free” label claims. Moreover, USDA is reevaluating safe food handling labeling requirements for the first time in 30 years, and is in the research stage of the project.

CDC: Better Surveillance, Reporting, and Prevention

Robert discussed CDC’s systems for foodborne pathogen surveillance and foodborne disease reporting, including PulseNet, for which a redesign is ongoing. PulseNet’s data platform is to be modernized, and Vibrio and Campylobacter will be added. The entire CDC website will also be redesigned in an effort named "Operation Clean Slate."

Moreover, CDC is looking to establish an Office of Prevention to facilitate collaboration between the agency and its federal and state regulatory partners, which will hopefully lead to more effective foodborne illness outbreak prevention. Robert mentioned specific pathogen-food combinations that CDC would like to target through this Office of Prevention: Salmonella and poultry, Escherichia coli and leafy greens, Salmonella and beef, and Vibrio and shellfish. CDC would also like to collaborate with its partners to promote better food safety practices and policies in correctional facilities, where foodborne illness outbreaks are magnified.

Pointing to the younger Summit attendees in the audience, Gillian asked Robert to reflect upon his career and provide words of advice for the next generation of food safety professionals. “Expect the unexpected,” he answered, and added, “keep your eyes and mind open.”

AFDO: Budget Concerns for SLTT Inspections

Last but not least, Steven took the microphone to represent the state, local, tribal, and territorial (SLTT) regulatory perspective. He first addressed Jim, sharing that he is impressed with his leadership at FDA, and calling attention to Jim’s outreach and engagement efforts, his transparency, and his quick work. However, Steven also expressed disappointment with the Fiscal Year 2025 budget proposal for FDA, which would effectively reduce the funding that FDA provides for state and local inspections. “There will be real ramifications,” he said. Steven also mentioned the consensus among major industry and consumer protection groups in their belief that the reduced funding for state and local inspections will be dangerous, which the groups expressed in a joint letter to U.S. Congress (letter to Senate, letter to House) urging them to allocate additional funding to FDA. “I have only seen one other time that all of these groups united, and that was about FSMA [the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act]," he said.

Jim clarified that, while the amount of money SLTTs receive for inspections will effectively be reduced, it is not because the official budget for this work has changed; rather, in past years, FDA has given SLTTs the “extra money” in its budget. Due to inflation, that surplus has diminished and will not be available in the future. The actual amount of money SLTTs have for inspections will be reduced from more than $100 million to $83 million.

During the question-and-answer session, an attendee asked Steve about ways in which SLTTs could innovate to adapt to budget cuts. Steven answered that, while innovation in itself requires resources, possible courses of action are to improve the efficiency of inspections by using Big Data and deciphering whether inspectors are spending their time in the highest-risk facilities. Steven believes that time would be better spent in small facilities rather than large operations with established food safety cultures and systems.

Aside from budgetary concerns, Steven shared that AFDO will continue to prioritize its work on retail inspection modernization and ushering in widespread adoption of the most recent version of the FDA Food Code.