(Jan. 21) NEW ORLEANS — The Food and Drug Administration believes its Food Protection Plan will help the agency move toward preventing foodborne illness outbreaks rather than reacting to them, said David Acheson, FDA assistant commissioner for food protection.

Acheson spoke to American Farm Bureau Federation members during their annual meeting on Jan. 14.

The U.S. food supply is one of the safest in the world, but he said consumer risk of encountering pathogens on produce won’t go away in the near future.

“We are not ever going to grow something in the dirt, short of irradiating it or cooking it, with a 100% guarantee,” he said.

Because of that, Acheson said consumers need to learn to assess risk and the industry should increase risk communication.

During his presentation, Acheson reviewed details from the spinach-related foodborne illness outbreak in 2006, as well as two other outbreaks traced to lettuce that year.

In the spinach case, 70% of the victims were women. That’s likely because more women eat spinach, not because they’re more susceptible, he said.

While E. coli O157:H7 was present in the soil of implicated California farms, Acheson said the FDA still doesn’t know how the deadly E. coli contaminated the spinach.

“I don’t know, and that’s a key preventive question that we need to work with you all to figure out,” he said.

After the session, Acheson praised the produce industry for stepping up to the plate for its efforts to make traceability work. He said traceability is a critical component to limit damage to an industry if an outbreak happens.

In a November-December 2006 outbreak, one of the fields where the lettuce originated was near two dairy farms.

“Did the E. coli get from the dairy operations to the lettuce fields? No proof, and no clear link, but it does raise the question,” he said.

Acheson outlined steps the FDA is taking to move to a preventive posture, including the agency’s development of the Food Protection Plan and the Import Safety Action Plan. The FDA is asking Congress for mandatory recall authority and authorization to use accredited third-party companies for voluntary food safety inspections.

Bioterrorism remains a concern of government officials, Acheson said. He said intelligence reports indicate terrorists have discussed targeting components of the food industry.

Whether facing intentional or unintentional contamination, Acheson said the FDA needs cooperation at the local level.

“What goes on at the local level is absolutely critical, and we need to work with growers, local officials and farmers to solve his problem,” he said. “We need to get proactive to prevent this stuff from happening in the first place and not just react to it.”

After the session, Acheson was asked was asked about the concept of charging every food facility an annual registration fee that would be used to help fund the cost of food safety inspections. That has the support of some lawmakers and consumer groups, who say an annual registration fee inherently has less conflict of interest than a fee for service approach.

Acheson said that the FDA’s Food Protection plan mentions two fees, and both are fees for service.

“We haven’t taken a position on user fees per se, but at the end of the day we will have to have resources and it is up to everybody about where to generate resources,” he said.

FDA wants movement on food protection plan
David Acheson (left), the Food and Drug Administration's assistant commissioner for food protection, answers questions at the American Farm Bureau Federation's annual meeting on Jan. 14. The FDA's Food Protection Plan needs to move forward, Acheson said during the meeting.