By: Michael R. Taylor
Last week, we kicked off a series of public meetings—with about 400 people participating—to stimulate dialogue and gain input on FDA’s first two proposed rules to implement the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. In her opening remarks, Dr. Hamburg noted how her appointment as FDA Commissioner by President Obama, coming on the heels of the illnesses and deaths attributed to contaminated peanut products, helped make food safety a high priority for her and the Administration.
It was fitting that we held our first meeting in a USDA auditorium in Washington, D.C., because we have worked closely with USDA and with other government partners at the state and local level, as well as with industry and consumer groups, to get the rules right. That means holding a lot of meetings to explain the proposed rules, visiting farms and facilities, and opening dockets for comments from interested parties, to receive as much input from the public as possible before we finalize the rules.
The diversity of those who signed up to make public comments at the meeting shows how important food safety is to all of us, from victims of foodborne illness to farmers and food manufacturers. First up was 15-year-old Dana Dziadul, who was three years old when she became ill from Salmonella in cantaloupe. The compelling stories from Dana and other victims of foodborne illness, and their families, remind us all that first and foremost, we have a public health obligation to address the harsh reality that each year, 3,000 people die and more than 100,000 are hospitalized because of foodborne illness. Our first obligation is to do everything we can to reduce these numbers.
We also know that improving food safety helps avoid the disruptions in the marketplace that result from illness outbreaks and recalls of food and maintain consumer confidence in healthful foods, such as the produce that the proposed rules cover. This convergence of interests has made our current food safety initiatives a real community effort, with industry, consumers and government coming together around the common goal of modernizing our food safety system to better prevent problems. We all have a responsibility, and we all have a role, in making and keeping food safe.
The work ahead may sound simple—having the right standards in place that are based on the best information we have on how to prevent hazards, and making sure these standards are met. But we have much yet to accomplish. We have to make sure the standards are flexible enough to address the diversity of operations across the country—from small farms to large facilities, from Maine to California. We also need to be sure FDA is ready to operate under this new, prevention-oriented framework, which will require employee training and ensuring our resources are focused on the greatest risks. And we are committed to providing technical assistance so that industry, especially small operations, can meet the new requirements when they are finalized.
These two proposed rules we have announced are very important, but we have three additional rules coming to further form our food safety framework. To address the safety of imports, we will soon be proposing a rule that requires that importers based in the United States verify that their overseas supplies are following prevention-based standards that provide the same level of public health protection as those that are in place here. Also addressing imports is a proposed rule on the accreditation of the third party auditors that industry uses to help them determine if food safety standards are being met. The third proposed rule coming addresses preventive controls for animal food, including pet food. Preventive controls are steps that firms must put in place to control hazards such as microbial contamination that could occur in a food facility.
We will be holding two more public meetings—one in Chicago and one in Portland, Oregon. You can find more information on our web site at fda.gov/fsma. Six meetings in various states across the country also are scheduled. Your comments are important to us, and I encourage you to submit comments at regulations.gov before the May 16th deadline.
The road ahead is a long one, and it will take years, and sustained commitment, to have our framework fully in place. But, for America’s families and our vibrant food system, the hard work is absolutely worth it!
Michael R. Taylor is FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine