WASHINGTON, D.C. — Borrowing from the model of the National Transportation Safety Board and its investigation of airplane accidents, the United Fresh Produce Association believes a national foodborne disease investigation board should be considered.
Jennifer McEntire, vice president of food safety and technology for the United Fresh Produce Association, presented reasons to consider the concept in a Sept. 25 session at the association’s Washington Conference.
The idea is a talking point for Washington Conference attendees marching on Capitol Hill Sept. 25 and Sept. 26. A handout for the Hill visits prompted attendees to urge members of Congress to “examine how systematic flaws and inefficiencies in investigations of foodborne disease outbreaks can be resolved. Work to better align government and industry resources and expertise to investigate the causes of outbreaks to prevent future illnesses.”
McEntire said the present system is flawed, with outbreaks often over before any investigation begins.
If an outbreak is a public health crisis, McEntire asked, why isn’t it treated as such by investigators?
Greater use of environmental assessments/investigations related to the origins of outbreaks could be useful. That rarely occurs now, she said.
“The system is broken,” she said, noting that public health is not being protected, resources are being wasted and consumers are confused.
McEntire said the National Transportation Safety Board conducts independent investigations of all U.S. civilian aviation accidents and major accidents of other modes of transportation. A team of investigators goes to the scene of the accident immediately and has one person in charge of the whole group. The body has no regulatory or enforcement powers, but can give safety recommendations at any time.
Foodborne illness investigations linked to produce add complexity compared with airplane accidents, since the origin of an outbreak is not immediately known and the investigation may be concurrent with the outbreak.
While industry leaders could lend expertise to an outbreak investigation, the industry could not create such a quick response team on its own, McEntire said. An industry-only board could be accused of obstruction of an investigation if the fact worked against their self-interest.
“I think what we need to do is not point fingers, but (to) say we’re looking to better own this ourselves,” she said. “But there needs to be clear leadership and the system today is not working — I don’t know anyone who feels that today’s outbreak investigation system works.”
A first step towards a new model, McEntire said, is for industry leaders to ask Congress for a hearing about the failing of the current foodborne outbreak investigation system.
“I do think that it warrants a Congressional hearing to gain a better understanding of the system that we do have today, an understanding of why it’s flawed and where we can inject resources into it is a well-driven investigative process,” she said.