A Mother’s Loss, an Advocate’s Example, Fuel Our Mission to Keep Foods Safe

By: Michael R. Taylor

For the many people in government, and elsewhere, who have been working on implementation of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), this has been a week for reflection, celebration, and anticipation. I got to experience all three in the 24 hours I spent this week at the 2015 Food Safety Consortium in Schaumberg, Illinois.

Michael R. TaylorTuesday night I joined the many friends and supporters of the public health organization STOP Foodborne Illness in honoring Nancy Donley for her 22 years of ‎relentless advocacy for improving food safety. She is driven by the memory of her 6-year-old son Alex, who suffered greatly before he died in 1993 after eating a hamburger contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.

This was a time for reflection. Nancy and the many others in the STOP network who have shared their excruciating stories of pain and loss have made it simply unacceptable for those producing food to do anything less than their best to prevent these tragedies from happening.

Nancy, as much as any single person, has catalyzed fundamental change in our food safety culture toward making food safety a central business value for food companies and shifting government oversight toward a model that ensures accountability for minimizing contamination by pathogens.

Nancy has inspired me and many others to see food safety as the deeply personal, primary value it is, and to act accordingly.‎

STOP also honored Walmart’s Frank Yiannas as a STOP Food Safety Hero for his pioneering work to define and instill food safety culture as a primary value in the food industry.

Reflections on Nancy’s and Frank’s contributions are the backdrop for a bit of celebration. Not because the culture change Nancy inspires and the food safety success we seek are complete — far from it. But we are on our way.

The three FSMA rules FDA issued last week to improve produce safety and strengthen oversight of imports, coupled with the preventive controls rules we finalized in September, create a powerful and comprehensive new framework for the prevention of foodborne illness. This framework will be completed next year with final rules on food transport and intentional adulteration. The rules are the product of enormous effort by teams of FDA experts and by the many government, industry and consumer partners whose input has been so important in shaping the rules.

At the conference Wednesday morning, I shared some of these reflections and the sense of celebration and gratitude we are experiencing at FDA. I got some positive nods and no push back, but it was clear that the food safety professionals at this gathering are focused on the future, anticipating the challenges and changes FSMA will bring.

So are we at FDA. We see challenges galore, but also a huge opportunity to fulfill a vision that Nancy and STOP rightfully insist be the guide for our food safety work and our food safety culture.

Food safety is a primary value for many in the food system. It must be so for all.

Science-based prevention is the organizing principle for many food production systems. It must be for all. 

And a spirit of common cause and collaboration on food safety, which has begun to take root in so many positive ways, must be the foundation for all the work ahead to successfully implement FSMA.

So, this week, let’s celebrate where we are as we anticipate and build the future.

Michael R. Taylor is FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine

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