By: Michael R. Taylor
All over the country, local food systems produce, market, and distribute foods that nourish their communities. In our travels over the past few years, seeking input on proposed rules to implement the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), we have seen first-hand just how important these grassroots systems are to the American way of life.
I saw another impressive example of a community-centered food system when my colleagues and I toured the Oneida Nation in Wisconsin last month and met with members of the tribe, who are justifiably proud of their farming traditions. We met the people behind the Oneida Community Integrated Food Systems (OCIFS), established in 1994, which provides education about food, nutrition and health, and integrates locally produced foods into the Oneida community and institutions.
It is an impressive system. It includes a 6,000 acre farm, where they raise Black Angus cattle and bison; a 40-acre apple orchard that offers 34 varieties of apples, as well as other fruits and vegetables; an 80-acre organic farm that has community gardens and a cannery, and offers workshops on cooking and gardening; a food distribution program that feeds low-income members of the community; and a market in which the Oneida sell what they have planted, produced and harvested.
The community produces more than food. It also encourages healthy-eating. There is a state-of-the-art health center that focuses on weight management and diabetes prevention, striving to empower members of the community to make positive life choices. The facility is evocative of the tribal culture and sophisticated in its delivery of health services. They have had incredible success in improving diabetes outcomes in terms of care and prevention.
We toured and met with tribal leaders. Then we had a frank discussion about the important relationship between the FDA and the more than 560 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and villages. The Oneida Nation is a sovereign state, as are the other tribes, and federal agencies have an obligation to consult them in certain matters of importance. From their standpoint, the sheer number of federal agencies they have to deal with—including FDA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—can be a source of frustration and confusion.
From FDA’s perspective, the challenge of working effectively with hundreds of diverse, sovereign tribal governments mirrors the challenges we face across the breadth of FSMA implementation.
The Oneida Nation is emblematic of the diversity of our food system. This diversity is a great strength, but it’s also part of what makes implementing FSMA and achieving food safety a daunting task. It’s doable, however, because, whether they’re sending their products around the world or around the corner, all participants in today’s food system have the same stake in food safety. It is FDA’s mission to reach across this broad spectrum, create standards that are feasible for all food producers, and support their food safety efforts any way we can.
This demands collaboration and partnerships. Our partnership with American Indian and Alaska Native tribes is among the building blocks of the modern food safety system mandated by FSMA. I was inspired by what I saw in our trip to the Oneida Nation, by their cultural commitment to the health of their community and their willingness to embrace new technologies while staying true to traditions. They lend rich color to the kaleidoscope that is our global food system.
Michael R. Taylor is FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine