By: Michael R. Taylor
I recently had the pleasure of speaking at the Consumer Food Safety Education Conference convened by the Partnership for Food Safety Education (PFSE). The conference brought together food safety educators from across the country – people in state and local health departments, universities, extension services, and food businesses who are working every day on the front line, with consumers, to reduce food safety risks by improving consumer food handling practices.
The theme of the conference was “Together: A Food Safe America” – a theme that captures so well the sense of community, high purpose and energy that were present so abundantly at the conference. I shared the podium with two good friends and colleagues representing key FDA partners on food safety – USDA’s Acting Under Secretary for Food Safety Brian Ronholm, and Joe Corby, the Executive Director of the Association of Food and Drug Officials, which represents state and local food safety officials.
We regulators have a responsibility, through our oversight of the food industry, to do everything we reasonably can to make sure that the foods consumers bring into their homes are as safe as they can be. We are doing this by building into our food safety standards and compliance programs modern concepts and techniques for preventing the contamination that can make people sick.
Under the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), we at FDA have a new mandate to build a farm-to-table system of prevention, encompassing work that must be done to make food safe at four major stages of the commercial food system. These pillars of prevention include:
- Production of produce on the farm,
- Practices in food processing and storage facilities,
- Transportation of food, and
- Practices in grocery stores and restaurants.
But there’s a fifth pillar of prevention, and that’s the consumer. We all know that, even with the best of efforts by commercial food producers and handlers, consumers still must play a crucial role in preventing the introduction and spread of contamination – by keeping their hands and food surfaces clean, by keeping raw meat and produce separate, and by being sure to cook food to proper temperatures and chill food through prompt refrigeration.
It seems like common sense – and the basic ideas are – but food safety educators know that it’s far from simple to provide consumers the information, tools, and motivation they need to turn common sense into sustained behavior change. But they are out there, every day, doing the hard work.
We in government and the food industry need to better support our food safety educators. FDA, USDA, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) do some good work on food safety education. For example, at FDA, our current programs include targeting groups and individuals who are especially vulnerable to foodborne illness and partnering with the National Science Teachers Association to incorporate food safety into the science curriculum at the middle and high school levels. But there is more we can do to support food safety educators at the front line, in their daily work with consumers in clinics, in schools and in communities – where most of the food safety education, and all of the behavior change, takes place.
At FDA, we will be building food safety education into our risk-based priority setting paradigm, which means documenting better the contribution that education makes to reducing risk, evaluating what works to sustainably improve consumer practices, and targeting resources where they will make a real difference. Federal food safety agencies – and their finite resources – are overwhelmingly focused on the congressional mandate to prevent hazards arising from the commercial supply chain, which makes sense: that’s what we regulate. But, backed up by the right analysis, we can effectively target and increase our investment in consumer education in ways that will make a real difference for public health.
But the federal government can only do so much. And that’s where PFSE comes in. The Partnership brings together government, industry and consumer leaders to pool their expertise, share their perspectives, and collaborate on the hard work of food safety education. I applaud and thank the consumer groups, food companies, and trade and professional associations that are contributing their time, creative energy and resources to the work of the Partnership. And I salute the PFSE’s Executive Director Shelley Feist for her leadership and her sustained commitment to food safety and consumer education.
Working hard, and working together, we can have a Food Safe America.
Michael R. Taylor is FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine