BALTIMORE — Integration was a recurring theme at the 12th annual Food Safety Summit where produce professionals, government officials and non-governmental organization leaders repeatedly said collaboration at all levels will be the key to success.
Will Daniels, senior vice president for operations at Earthbound Farm, San Juan Bautista, Calif., called for cooperation and transparency. He said Earthbound corporate leaders feel so strongly about encouraging collaboration that they will soon open their facilities to competitors to share food safety techniques.
Daniels also called for produce companies to “stop thinking government is out to get us and start working with them.”
“I believe most in government are public servants who want to help,” Daniels said. “I believe government has recognized the need for change.”
Several government officials and leaders of non-governmental organizations discussed that need for change during summit sessions.
“The most important need and challenge is to truly integrate food safety systems in the United States,” said Joseph Corby, executive director of the Association of Food and Drug Officials, York, Pa.
“It is the only way to truly make a difference. We need to knock down barriers and change the culture that has kept us from integrating the food safety system.”
Corby was one of three panelists at a question-and-answer session May 2.
Elisabeth Hagen, undersecretary for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture said the department needs input from industry and academia as its staff works on “modernizing the agency.” She said USDA’s work in food safety hasn’t kept pace with the technology and information available and insight from external sources is crucial for the agency to catch up.
Mike Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods at the Food and Drug Administration, said in addition to industry sources the FDA relies on state agencies to help with food safety. He said FDA already has contracts with state agencies to conduct 60% of its inspections, a practice that will continue under the Food Safety Modernization Act.
“We believe we need to build even more partnerships with states,” Taylor said. “States are a huge asset and can work in supportive and cost-effective ways.”
Other FDA administrators discussed integration efforts that have been in the works since the 1990s during a session titled “Understanding the Regulatory Community and the Partnership for Food Protection.”
Roberta Wagner, director of the food safety office at FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said mandates in FSMA for have accelerated progress toward integrated food safety systems and the Partnership for Food Protection. She said one of the challenges for government is to figure out how to better share data.
Wagner cited an example of one food company that had six government audits within a six-month period last year. She said the company produces human and animal food, as well as having organic products.
“They are an unusual case, but there should be some way to coordinate things. Maybe a group visit on one day instead of individual audits will be possible one day,” Wagner said.
To achieve better cooperation among governmental entities, Wagner said FDA created a taskforce last year to identify weaknesses and develop an action plan. That internal “self-help” document is already being used to help the agency meet FSMA requirements, she said.
Timothy Weigner, branch director for FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs, said he is seeing progress toward integration and standardization among various levels of governmental food safety agencies. He said FMSA provisions are stimulating movement.
“As of April, 553 regional jurisdictions are enrolled in the Voluntary National Retail Food Regulatory Program Standards,” Weigner said.
“We are also seeing the development of rapid response teams for food-related illnesses. We can’t stop all (such) events, but we can sure respond faster to lessen their impact.”