Technology Transfer—Transforming Food Safety with the GenomeTrakr Collaboration

By: Alice Welch

In my last blog post I discussed how FDA’s Technology Transfer program helps drive innovation by building collaborations that can solve today’s public health challenges using leading-edge science. This blog post describes one of those FDA collaborations—a pathogen detection network that is transforming food safety.

Alice WelchAccording to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), foodborne disease outbreaks are responsible for about 48 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 3,000 deaths every year in the United States. The annual toll for Salmonella poisoning alone in this country is 1 million illnesses, 19,000 hospitalizations, and nearly 400 deaths. As the world becomes even more interconnected, FDA has recognized the urgency of creating new approaches and better tools to detect food contamination and stop outbreaks in their tracks.

The FDA-established GenomeTrakr is an innovative response to this global public health challenge. Using a cutting-edge technology called Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS), FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) and Office of Regulatory Affairs (ORA) are collaborating with federal and state public health laboratories to build a publicly accessible genomic database called GenomeTrakr. GenomeTrakr enables us to compare some of the bacterial pathogens that cause foodborne diseases and trace them back to their sources faster and more precisely than traditional methods.

WGS is a laboratory process that identifies the complete DNA sequence of an organism’s genetic material at a single time. The process is being used together with GenomeTrakr to identify pathogens isolated from food or environmental samples and compare them to pathogens isolated from sick patients. If the isolates from food or environmental samples match the pathogens taken from the sick patients, scientists can establish a reliable link that helps characterize the size and location of the foodborne disease outbreak. It can even help public health officials determine which ingredient in a multi-ingredient food is causing the outbreak—so that we can get contaminated food out of the food supply. Used by epidemiologists in combination with traditional methods, WGS is advancing our understanding of contaminations in the food supply.

Pathogens evolve very quickly and have thousands of genetic variations. After spending time in a particular geographic location, a pathogen like Salmonella begins to acquire unique genetic signatures that identify it as coming from that location. Until recently, some strains of Salmonella have looked much the same to us, no matter where we found them, because some of the older methods of testing have been unable to distinguish between certain strains of pathogens. But WGS can detect unique signatures within and between species with far greater precision than previous methods, which makes it one of our biggest secret weapons in tackling foodborne illness outbreaks.

FDA scientists and our collaborators in federal and state public health laboratories are using WGS and the GenomeTrakr database to identify those unique signatures. The signatures can often tell us, for example, if a Salmonella that has contaminated a certain part of the food supply is from the U.S. West Coast, New England, or even Germany. FDA and state lab scientists upload the entire genome sequence for a pathogen into the GenomeTrakr database at the National Center for Biotechnology Information, where it’s available for further use. As the database continues to grow, it’s becoming an increasingly powerful tool to help investigations home in faster on the root causes of outbreaks and track their location.

The potential of technologies like WGS to enhance food safety could not be realized without the development of a powerful database like GenomeTrakr. But to build that kind of database FDA needed to form a web of collaborations. Enter FDA’s Technology Transfer team. It plays a critical role in working with our researchers to create the successful relationships that make huge databases like GenomeTrakr work.

To achieve CFSAN’s vision, FDA’s Technology Transfer team worked with CFSAN researchers to create agreements tailored to the project’s needs. The team drafted collaboration agreements that included provisions for establishing relationships between FDA and state laboratories to perform WGS and upload genome sequences into GenomeTrakr. Once CFSAN’s project concept and goals were established, Technology Transfer experts negotiated and put agreements in place so FDA could begin linking federal and state partners to advance the use of WGS across public health.

Since the first state public health lab collaboration was established in February 2012, FDA, along with other international, federal, and state laboratories have added genome sequences for more than 11,000 isolates to the GenomeTrakr database, and we are already seeing impressive results! In early 2014, through a partnership with CDC, FDA and state department of health laboratories used GenomeTrakr to match environmental and food samples with human biological samples, which helped FDA confirm the source of Listeria in an outbreak.

This collaboration is just one of many that our Technology Transfer team has helped create to support FDA efforts to speed innovation in public health. Stay tuned for my next post, where I’ll discuss an FDA invention that is preventing hundreds of thousands of Africans from contracting the debilitating disease of Meningitis.

Learn more:  Whole Genome Sequencing: The Future of Food Safety

HHS Innovates Award Paves Way for the Future of Food Safety and PulseNet

Alice Welch, Ph.D., is Director of FDA’s Technology Transfer Program

A Year of Significant Progress in Public Health

By: Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D.

Margaret Hamburg, M.D.A new year offers both an opportunity to look forward and an opportunity to reflect on the achievements of the previous year. And, in 2014, FDA’s accomplishments were substantial, touching on many of the agency’s broad responsibilities to protect and promote the public health.

Whether our achievements involved medical product safety and innovation, food safety and nutrition, tobacco control, or other areas of our important work, all were accomplished thanks in large part to our ability to respond to evolving needs and opportunities including the embrace of new approvals, technologies and cutting-edge science.

Consider these highlights:

Drug Approvals: This past calendar year, FDA approved 51 novel drugs and biologics (41 by CDER and 10 by CBER), the most in almost 20 years. Among CDER’s 2014 approvals are treatments for cancer, hepatitis C and type-2 diabetes, as well as the most new drugs for “orphan” diseases since Congress enacted the Orphan Drug Act over 30 years ago. Seventeen of these new approvals are “first in class” therapies, which represent new approaches in the treatment of disease. In addition, CBER approved many important biological products in 2014, including a number of groundbreaking vaccines for meningitis B, the flu, and certain types of Human Papillomavirus, the latter of which is expected to prevent approximately 90 percent of the cervical, vulvar, vaginal and anal cancers caused by HPV.

These developments are a testament not just to our expanding understanding of human biology, the biology of disease and the molecular mechanisms that drive the disease process, but also to FDA’s innovative approaches to help expedite development and review of medical products that target unmet medical needs, while adhering to the established standards for safety and efficacy. These include enhanced guidance to shape the research and development agenda, early input on clinical study needs and design, expedited review programs, targeted regulatory advice and other tools and incentives that spur investment and innovation in new medical products to address unmet medical needs.

Opioids: This past year FDA took several actions to address the abuse of opioid drugs. First, we approved abuse deterrent labeling for three opioid products that are designed to deter prescription drug abuse. These drugs used different technologies to combat the abuse problem in different ways, such as by making the product resistant to crushing or dissolving or using “aversive technology” to discourage users from taking more than the approved dosage of the drug. To help encourage the development of more drugs in abuse-deterrent forms, we are also working to provide additional advice to manufacturers. Although abuse-deterrent opioid drugs are not a silver bullet to prevent opioid abuse, we believe that our work in this area will give physicians effective new treatment options with less risk of abuse.

FDA also worked to improve the treatment of patients who overdose on opioids. We approved a new dosage form of naloxone, with an autoinjector to enable a caregiver to administer the drug in the emergency treatment of opioid overdose (as it rapidly reverses the effects of an overdose). While we continue to support development in this area, this approval offers a new valuable tool to help prevent the tragedy of opioid drug overdose.

Antibiotic Resistance: We made important strides in confronting the growing resistance of some bacteria to antimicrobial drugs. Our efforts, which are a critical part of the recently unveiled National Strategy on Combating Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria, offer a multi-pronged approach that recognizes that to effectively address this challenge means simultaneously addressing the many different causes for increasing antibiotic resistance. One important response has been efforts to expand the pipeline of new medical products, including therapeutics to treat and cure infection, diagnostics to aid in the identification of the cause of infection and of resistant infections, and vaccines to help prevent infection with bacteria in the first place.

These efforts are already having an impact. In 2014, FDA approved four novel systemic antibiotics. In contrast, only five new antibiotics had been approved in the previous ten year period.

In addition to working on the human medical product side, we also developed and, over the next two years will be implementing, an important complementary strategy to eliminate the use of medically important antibiotics for growth promotion in food-producing animals. This strategy, once fully implemented, also will bring the remaining uses of such drugs to treat, control or prevent disease in these animals under the oversight of veterinarians. All 26 animal health companies who produce those drugs have committed to participate, and 31 products already have been withdrawn from the market.

Pharmacy Compounding: We continued to respond effectively to the 2012 outbreak of fungal meningitis that was linked to contaminated compounded drugs. This included conducting more than 90 inspections of compounding facilities across the nation in the past year. As a result, numerous firms that engaged in poor sterile practices stopped making sterile drugs, and many firms recalled drugs that have been made under substandard conditions. Where appropriate, we have worked with the Department of Justice to pursue enforcement action against some of these facilities.

We also have continued to implement the compounding provisions of the Drug Quality and Security Act (DQSA), and to develop and implement policies to address compounding by state-licensed pharmacies and the new category of registered outsourcing facilities.

Food Safety: Over the past year, the Agency has made great strides in implementing the landmark FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). Through our proposed rules for preventive controls requirements for both human and animal food, standards for produce safety, foreign supplier verification programs, third party auditor accreditation, focused mitigation strategies to prevent intentional adulteration of food aimed at causing large-scale public health harm, and requirements for sanitary transportation practices to ensure the safe transport of food, we are working to ensure the safety of American consumers related to the foods they eat.

Nutrition: Good health depends not just on food safety, but also on what we choose to eat. FDA plays an important role in promoting good nutrition and healthy food choices by helping consumers understand the importance and benefits of good nutrition – and of being able to make informed choices about what we eat.

New rules in 2014 to finalize requiring calorie information on restaurant menus and vending machines give our citizens information they need to make healthy food choices and hopefully help reduce the epidemic of obesity in the United States. We also proposed changes to the familiar “Nutrition Facts” label on packaged foods which, when finalized, will give our citizens updated nutrition information, reflecting the most current nutrition science, to help them make healthy choices when purchasing packaged foods.

Tobacco Control: There are few areas that have as profound an impact on public health as tobacco products, which is why, five years ago, Congress gave FDA the responsibility to oversee the manufacture, marketing, distribution, and sale of tobacco products.

Over the past year, we worked with state authorities to conduct more than 124,000 inspections of retailers to enforce the ban on the sale of tobacco products to children. We unveiled the first of its kind national public education campaign—The Real Cost—to reduce youth smoking. And we took the first steps towards extending the agency’s tobacco product authority over additional products such as electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes), cigars, pipe tobacco, nicotine gels, waterpipe (hookah) tobacco, and dissolvables not already subject to such authority through our proposed “Deeming Rule.” In addition, as part of ongoing work on product review decisions, eleven tobacco products that were allowed to enter the market during a provisional period established by the Tobacco Control Act were found “not substantially equivalent” to a predicate tobacco product. As a result of this finding, these products can no longer be sold or distributed in interstate commerce or imported into the United States.

Ebola: The tragic Ebola epidemic in West Africa demonstrates that we do not have the luxury of closing our eyes – or our borders – to the public health problems that exist in the rest of the world. I’m proud that FDA has played an important role in the response to this disease, working closely with colleagues in our government as well as the scientific community, industry and a range of other organizations and nations. We have helped facilitate the development, testing, manufacture, and availability of investigational products for use in diagnosing, treating and preventing Ebola, and worked with sponsors and health care providers to facilitate access to these products as clinical circumstances warrant. In August 2014, FDA designated the drug Z-Mapp as an orphan drug for Ebola, with the hope that this would incentivize further development and study.

And I’m very pleased to report that FDA is represented on the ground in West Africa by dedicated officers of the Commissioned Corps of the Public Health Service who continue to staff and operate the Monrovia Medical Unit in Liberia that was built to treat the health workers who became ill responding to the outbreak. Like everything FDA does, both at home and abroad, our actions on Ebola represent our agency’s continuing commitment to health and safety, and the use of science to advance these important goals.

I am extremely proud of our accomplishments in 2014, and I am confident that FDA will have a successful 2015, as we continue our work to protect and promote the public health.

Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D., is Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration

Food Safety Together

By: Mary Lou Valdez and Julie Moss Ph.D., R.D.

In early December, we represented the FDA in Cape Town, South Africa, at the third annual conference of the Global Food Safety Partnership (GFSP). FDA has been a strong supporter of the GFSP since 2012, when it was launched by the World Bank and Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D., gave the keynote address at the first conference. FDA provides the Partnership with financial support and technical expertise.

Julie Moss (left) and Mary Lou Valdez (right)

Julie Moss (left) and Mary Lou Valdez (right)

The World Bank is uniquely positioned to facilitate the GFSP and create a “big tent” where all parties in the global supply chain can work together to help ensure that all food products are safe for consumers. While government agencies like FDA develop standards and regulations, and provide regulatory oversight, it is the food industry, not the government, which produces safe food for consumers. To be successful in improving global food safety, we need to create partnerships across nations and sectors. The unique role of GFSP is to enable and catalyze a clear strategic direction to strengthen food safety systems and supply chains globally in ways that can only be achieved or enhanced collectively.  The GFSP brings together government, industry, academic, consumer and international organizations, providing a unique and valuable opportunity for all of these parties to cooperate in new and creative ways to improve food safety. This requires coordination to focus our efforts and avoid duplicating each other’s work.

Attendees at the 2014 Food Safety Global Conference.

Attendees at the 2014 Food Safety Global Conference.

During the conference, we acknowledged progress on many ongoing food safety activities (e.g., needs assessment progress in Zambia and Good Aquaculture Practices training in Malaysia, among others) and we moved forward in building a framework for a long-term strategy to collectively support and sustain investment in food safety systems. Yet, there is still much work ahead for 2015, which will be a critical year for the GFSP, as we will further refine our strategy and look forward to making great strides in key GFSP initiatives, including work to strengthen food safety systems in China and Zambia. Success in protecting the safety of the world’s food requires a new paradigm with new partnerships across nations and sectors. Moving forward, we intend to work to expand and promote this valuable partnership in the coming year to continue to strengthen the global food safety net for all consumers.

At FDA, we recognize that today’s food supply chain is global, complex, and interconnected. Because the U.S. imports half of its fresh fruits and 80 percent of its seafood, our efforts to protect the U.S. food supply must be global, and we must build strong partnerships to create a world-wide product safety net to protect public health. GFSP is an example of our ongoing efforts to build partnerships as we aim to prevent unsafe products from entering the market, no matter where the products come from or where they are consumed.

Mary Lou Valdez is FDA’s Associate Commissioner for International Programs

Julie Moss, Ph.D., R.D., is Deputy Director, International Affairs Staff in FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition

50 States, One Goal: Working Together to Keep Our Food Safe

By: Melinda K. Plaisier and Michael R. Taylor

Melinda K. Plaisier is FDA’s Associate Commissioner for Regulatory Affairs.

Melinda K. Plaisier

The August 12 conference in St. Louis of the Partnership for Food Protection (PFP) was truly a meeting of the minds. This 50-state workshop drew food and feed safety experts from federal, state, local, tribal and territorial government agencies. These organizations make up the PFP. Our shared goal? To continue working towards a food safety system in our country that makes our food as safe as possible.

Partnerships have become increasingly important in our efforts. Simply put, we can’t do it alone. The scope of the public health mission is too vast. We need to take advantage of the unique contributions state and local partners can make through their food safety commitment, knowledge of local conditions and practices, and local presence to deliver training, technical assistance and compliance oversight. Together, we can ensure an effective public health safety net.

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

Michael R. Taylor

But building the kind of partnership we envision is an extraordinarily complex task. There are 3,000 food safety agencies in this country at the federal, state and local level. The challenge we face is this: How do we make PFP a reality that will work for decades to come? Working together to corral the complexities of our global food supply is critically important to our success and represents a significant shift in the way we work.

And creating that new reality is what our recent meeting was all about.

FDA itself is in a time of transition through Commissioner Hamburg’s initiative of program alignment. The agency is working to better align internal operations, increasing specialization among inspectors, compliance officers, laboratory staff and others to give them increased technical knowledge in a specific commodity area, and partnering them with subject matter experts in FDA’s centers. Ultimately, this will streamline decision-making and provide real-time technical and policy support for frontline staff.

This effort will better position FDA to meet the challenges we face, including the continued evolution of science and technology, the reality of globalization, and implementing the rules we are working to finalize that will help make the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) a reality—each rule,  in its own way, transformative.

Speaking with one voice as an agency and acting in unison across internal boundaries will enable FDA to better support our state partners as we all work to use innovative tools, training and approaches.

Our collaborations with the Association of Food and Drug Officials, the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, the National Association of County and City Health Officials, the National Environmental Health Association, and the Association of Public Health Laboratories—just to name a few—are equally valuable in this cause.

We are well on our way toward making our partnership through PFP a foundation of the modern infrastructure we are building to protect public health. Our partners are engaged, and FDA is all in. And now we are truly beginning to see some of the fruits of our labor. Until we meet again, our work continues.

Melinda K. Plaisier is FDA’s Associate Commissioner for Regulatory Affairs.

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

On the road from Mexico: a model for regulatory cooperation

En Español

By: Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D.

Margaret Hamburg

FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D., meeting with Mexican public health and regulatory officials in Mexico City this week

This week I’m making my first visit to Mexico as FDA Commissioner and, while I am savoring the rich culture, warm people and delicious food, the trip is providing me with a vital first-hand perspective of the long-standing, productive and collaborative working relationship FDA maintains with our regulatory counterparts in this wonderful country. I’ve blogged many times about the importance of adapting to our rapidly changing world—one in which the medical products we use and the foods we eat are increasingly produced in countries other than our own. Perhaps nowhere is that dynamic more vivid than with our neighbors to the South. And nowhere provides a more profound example of how cooperation is essential to protect public health and realize the benefits of a vibrant trade relationship.

Today, Mexico is a major player in the global marketplace and, of course, one of the United States’ most important trade partners. In the U.S., nearly one-third of the FDA-regulated food products we eat come from Mexico. On the medical products side, Mexico is the 2nd leading exporter of medical devices to the U.S.—the vast majority of which are lower risk devices such as surgical drapes, wheelchair components, and non-invasive tubing.

The foundation of successful cooperation is forging real relationships with our regulatory counterparts and our key stakeholders including the industries we regulate. FDA’s office in Mexico City—one of three in the Latin America region—has been a critical source of support for many of our collaborative activities since we opened its doors some four years ago. And this week my colleagues and I have had the opportunity to have fruitful meetings with the leaders of the Mexican Ministry of Health and the two regulatory agencies with whom work so closely: COFEPRIS (the Federal Commission for the Protection from Sanitary Risks) and SENASICA (the National Service for Agroalimentary Public Health, Safety and Quality).

We’ve discussed our respective strategies to address our nations’ most critical public health issues like obesity and nutrition, and the important ways in which we share information and align our regulatory approaches. For example, our partners in Mexico have such confidence in FDA’s premarket review system of medical products that COFEPRIS issues agreements with companies — agreements that recognize FDA approvals and grant drug and device companies “fast track” pathway to make their products available to patients dramatically more quickly.

Margaret Hamburg and Mike Taylor at mushroom farm

FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D. (foreground), and Michael R. Taylor, Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine (left), visit a mushroom farm in Mexico

We also held two interactive roundtable discussions with members of the medical products and food industries in which we had lively exchanges about key issues such as how quality manufacturing is not only good for public health, but good for business. And yesterday I got a close up view on that critical concept with a visit to the Monteblanco facility of Hongos de Mexico, S.A. de C.V., one of Mexico’s largest producer of mushrooms – located in the Toluca valley just a 90 minute drive from downtown Mexico City. Hongos de Mexico is a company that FDA has routinely visited and inspected given Monteblanco produces a staggering 60,000 pounds of mushrooms each day for consumption within Mexico and export to the U.S. and other countries. In addition to being an enlightening education on the process of growing and packing mushrooms, our visit to the Monteblanco facility was a living example of the critical role the private sector plays to ensure the safety of products for consumers in the U.S. and around the world.

Today is the final day of our jam-packed visit to Mexico and I’m thrilled that we will be signing a Produce Safety Partnership Statement of Intent, which is just the latest example of the successful collaboration to reduce the increased risk of foodborne illnesses that naturally comes with a more globalized market. The partnership will support our work to implement preventive practices and verification measures to ensure the safety of fresh and minimally produced fruits and vegetables.

At the end of the day, our trip to Mexico has shined a bright light on how important it is to continue to explore new ways to fulfill the mission that we share with our regulators around the world—to protect and promote public health. Our partnership with Mexico serves as a model not only as it relates to improving the health and well-being of consumers but also to promote innovation and economic growth.

Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D., is Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Getting it Right on Spent Grains

By: Michael R. Taylor

Since the March 31 close of the comment period on FDA’s proposed animal feed rule, we’ve received a lot of questions and comments about so-called spent grains. Spent grains are by-products of alcoholic beverage brewing and distilling that are very commonly used as animal feed.

Michael TaylorTo add to the picture, spent brewer and distiller grains are just a subset of the much broader practice of human food manufacturers sending their peels, trimmings, and other edible by-products to local farmers or feed manufacturers for animal feed uses rather than to landfills. One industry estimate is that 70 percent of human food by-product becomes food for animals.

We’ve heard from trade groups and members of Congress, as well as individual breweries raising concerns that FDA might disrupt or even eliminate this practice by making brewers, distillers, and food manufacturers comply not only with human food safety requirements but also additional, redundant animal feed standards that would impose costs without adding value for food or feed safety.

That, of course, would not make common sense, and we’re not going to do it.

In fact, we agree with those in industry and the sustainability community that the recycling of human food by-products to animal feed contributes substantially to the efficiency and sustainability of our food system and is thus a good thing. We have no intention to discourage or disrupt it.

We also believe the potential for any animal safety hazard to result from this practice is minimal, provided the food manufacturer takes common sense steps to minimize the possibility of glass, motor oil or other similar hazards being inadvertently introduced, such as if scraps for animal feed were held in the same dumpster used for floor sweepings and industrial waste.

We understand how the language we used in our proposed rule could lead to the misperception that we are proposing to require human food manufacturers to establish separate animal feed safety plans and controls to cover their by-products, but it was never our intent to do so. In fact, we invited comment on practical ways to address by-products in keeping with their minimal potential risk.

We will take the necessary steps to clarify our intent in the rules themselves so there can be no confusion. As we previously announced, this summer we plan to issue revised proposals for comment on several key FSMA issues and we will include changes consistent with the points I’ve outlined in this blog.

Our door at FDA has been wide open to stakeholders at every step of the FSMA process. We have learned a lot through active, two-way dialogue with those who have concerns about what we propose or ideas about how we can achieve our food safety goals in the most practical way. We hope and fully expect that dialogue to continue.

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

Fishing for a solution

By: Stacey DeGrasse

My collaboration with fishermen began in 2005, when I was dispatched to New England to test the safety of shellfish harvested from federal waters infested by a type of algae that produces toxins. Shellfish that ingest the toxin are not harmed, but if the toxins reach high enough levels, they can make humans who eat the shellfish extremely ill.

The assignment given to me and three other scientists from the Food and Drug Administration: Determine if it was safe for fishermen to continue harvesting clams and other shellfish in the area without endangering consumers.

The high toxin levels we measured in the ocean areas experiencing the expansive bloom of Alexandrium fundyense algae prompted the closure of 15,000 square miles of harvest area to commercial clam fishermen. While it was gratifying to know we were preventing toxic shellfish from harming consumers, it was heartbreaking to look into the eyes of hardworking fishermen and know what the decision meant to their livelihoods.

Years before, in 1990, another Alexandrium bloom had closed to shellfish harvesting the massive Georges Bank, which begins 62 miles off the coast of New England and extends to Nova Scotia. The additional closing in 2005 plunged the clamming industry into crisis.

At that moment, I became determined to play a role in developing a strategy that would someday allow the fishermen to return to traditional fishing grounds while still protecting the public.

I joined colleagues, including FDA’s Paul DiStefano and Steve Conrad, who shared the same goal. Years of research led to a possible solution. The algal blooms come and go, so perhaps the answer was for fishermen to test the clams as they harvested them at sea. That way, the fishermen wouldn’t spend time and money many miles offshore, only to arrive at the docks for their product to be tested by government officials and discover they had returned with contaminated clams they’d have to pay to discard.

We worked with test kit manufacturers to adapt a test originally designed for lab scientists so it could be used by fishermen at sea. Our efforts simplified the kit. Still, the test took about an hour and a half and required precise steps, including keeping track of standards, samples, reagents, timed incubations and data collection. The fishermen would need to do all of this far offshore, sometimes under extreme conditions.

There was a lot of skepticism. First, how would the fishermen react to listening to days of lectures from a young, academically trained, government scientist? Could they accurately conduct these tests that sometimes even challenge lab scientists?

The fishermen, it turned out, are self-taught scientists eager to learn more in an academic setting. In fact, I soon learned that they have spent more time observing science at sea than I have done with my Ph.D. in oceanography. Their observational skills are keen, and they taught me as much about oceanography as I taught them during training sessions on land and at sea.

They shared with me their empirical knowledge about climatological and environmental effects on algal blooms, declines in clam populations due to temperature increases, and changes in whale behavior – to name a few.

While I enjoyed putting on my foul weather gear and participating in the hard work of dredging and shucking clams and testing them for toxins, the most memorable times came when fishermen told me sea stories. Topics ranged from harrowing events at sea to the most unusual organisms and objects they had pulled from the sea. I realized during those exchanges that we all had one thing in common – a love and respect for the sea and all that it offers.

The training worked. As of this year, a large portion of Georges Bank has reopened to commercial clam fishermen who agree to follow the biotoxin control strategy, which includes taking FDA-training to conduct onboard tests of their catch and submitting dockside shellfish samples for a second test conducted by state authorities.

I came to FDA rather than pursuing an academic position because I hoped my research would have immediate applications. My hopes have been fulfilled; it is extremely gratifying to see that our research has made a positive impact on the economy and on fishermen’s livelihood, while ensuring safe seafood for the public.  

Stacey DeGrasse is a research biologist in FDA’s Office of Regulatory Science, Division of Analytical Chemistry, Spectroscopy and Mass Spectrometry Branch

Hearing the Concerns of Maine Growers Striving for Agricultural Diversity

This is the fifth in a series of blogs by Deputy FDA Commissioner Michael Taylor on his multi-state tour to see agricultural practices first-hand and to discuss the produce-safety standards that FDA is proposing.

By Michael R. Taylor

Mike Taylor Visits Bob Spear's Family-Owned Farm Stand

Mike Taylor and colleagues visit the farm stand owned by the Spear family. Bob Spear (center, in the red shirt) is a farmer and a former Maine commissioner of agriculture. He is flanked by Taylor and his wife, Janet Spear.

We arrived Sunday in Portland, Maine, the first stop in our visit to growers and other food producers in New England. The green of Maine in the summer could not be more different from our trip last week to the mountainous desert of the Pacific Northwest.

In Maine, the scale and kind of farming are also different, as are the concerns about FDA’s plans to create science-based, food safety standards. The local-food movement is an important part of the culture here, and a great source of pride.

Many growers are trying to be successful by diversifying or by using innovative business models. Bob Spear, a farmer in Waldoboro and a former Maine commissioner of agriculture, is a good example. He sells much of his crop through his own beautiful farm store, which he and his wife Janet designed, and through community farmers’ markets or directly to stores.

Recently, he has found an excellent new use for some of the winter squash he produces. In the past, he culled and discarded squash with surface blemishes that make then unsuitable for retail sale even though they are perfectly good. Now, rather than throw them out, Spear peels and cuts the squash and sells it to local schools for their lunch programs. It’s a good source of income for him and it’s a good source of fresh, local produce for the schools.

But the fact that he uses his packing house to prepare that produce would make him subject to FDA’s Preventive Controls for Human Foods rule for those activities, in addition to our Produce Safety Rule for other activities. Both rules were proposed in January 2013 as part of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. The proposed preventive controls rule would set safety requirements for facilities that manufacture, process, pack, or hold food for people.

Will that discourage innovative approaches like the one Bob Spear has taken? Processing raw commodities creates an opportunity for introducing contamination, but we have to be sure our rules are as practical as possible for each situation.

We heard many variations on this theme of innovation, both in our visits to farms and in a listening session Monday morning in Augusta. Some revolved around the law’s exemption from most of our proposed produce safety rules for farmers whose average food sales are less than $500,000 a year and who sell the majority of that direct to consumers or to retailers or restaurants in the same state, or not more than 275 miles away from them. This exemption, coupled with the fact that FDA has proposed not to cover farms with $25,000 or less in food sales, would mean that many of Maine’s small farmers would not be covered by the rule. In fact, nationwide, we estimate that of 190,000 potentially affected produce farms, 110,000 (almost 60 percent) would not be covered because of their size and manner of distribution.

But exemptions and limitations naturally raise additional questions about how they will be applied. For example, what about dairy farmers who want to try a small produce operation? Would doing so put them over the $500,000 mark when added to their dairy sales? The law says the exemption is based on “food” sales, not produce sales, and this is how FDA has proposed to apply it. Folks in Maine are concerned that this will discourage farmers from diversifying.

Others look at the $500,000 exemption ceiling as a disincentive to grow their produce business. Why should they try to become more successful when their reward will be additional regulatory requirements? In addition, one person I talked to asked what happens if an unexpected jump in sales puts them over the $500,000 sales level. Would they have to be in instant compliance with the produce safety rule? In finalizing the proposed rules, we will try to find practical answers to questions like that.

Just as we saw in the Pacific Northwest, some growers are worried that the cost of meeting food safety regulations will be excessive and could even put them out of business. Our pledge in working toward the final rules is to make them as practical as possible so that we achieve food safety in a way that is workable across the great diversity of American agriculture, from the Pacific Northwest to New England.

Walt Whitcomb, Marilyn Meyerhans and Mike Taylor at Lakeside Orchards

Maine Commissioner of Agriculture Walt Whitcomb, left, Marilyn Meyerhans, owner of Lakeside Orchards, and Mike Taylor.

As we move forward with these regulations, the Cooperative Extension System will be a valuable resource for growers. These federally funded, university-based offices are staffed by experts available to help agricultural producers and small business owners in communities across the country with practical, research-based information. I had a chance to talk with John Rebar, who leads extension in Maine and participated in our listening session. He is committed to food safety and the welfare of Maine’s farmers and will be a great partner in doing this right.

You know the reputation folks in New England have for rugged individualism. Some of the people we met here seemed a bit skeptical of our intentions at first, thinking that we might be big-government bureaucrats going through the motions. I hope we convinced them that our interest is genuine.

Even so, after our visit to the beautiful Lakeside Orchards in Manchester, Maine, I thought it was brave for the restaurant where we had lunch to display this sign: “Welcome FDA.” (And it was an excellent meal!)

Keep watching this space. I will be filing more FDA Voice blogs this week to keep you up to date on what I learn in my travels to New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts.

For more photos of my multi-region tour, visit Flickr.

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

FDA Uses Web Tool to Better the Odds for Food Safety

By: Ted Elkin

When most people hear the words, “Monte Carlo,” they may think about high-stakes gambling.

We, however, think about reducing the risk in food safety through the use of FDA-iRISK, an innovative Web-based food safety modeling tool developed by the Food and Drug Administration and our partners.

Launched in October 2012, FDA-iRISK uses mathematical logic and Monte Carlo simulation (a computer program named for the gambling mecca) to integrate data and generate results that compare and rank risks of the contamination of foods by various hazards.  Unlike a traditional risk assessment of a single food and a single contaminant, FDA-iRISK allows users to compare multiple hazards – microbial or chemical – in multiple foods.

How does FDA-iRISK work?

Through extensive outreach to and collaboration with partners, we developed built-in templates and other features that allow the user to create real-world (or hypothetical) food safety scenarios.

The user provides the data for seven elements: the food(s), the hazard(s), the population of concern (for instance, elderly or immune-compromised), the production or processing system being used for the food, the consumption patterns, the dose response (what level of exposure will have a health impact), and how the health effects are to be calculated.

This allows the user flexibility, for instance, to look at the impact of potential interventions at various stages of the food production system as well as the populations affected.  And it’s easy to use.

Of particular benefit to the user is FDA-iRISK’s ability to generate reports that measure the health impact of an intervention in terms of the widely used public health metric, DALYs (“Disability-Adjusted Life Years,” meaning years of healthy life lost to illness or death).  This measure lets us know the “bang for the buck” of a particular intervention.

FDA-iRISK is quickly gaining acceptance and use in the food safety community.  As of the middle of May, almost 500 users had established accounts with FDA-iRISK and they came from every continent. Because it is web-based, FDA-iRISK is available to anyone in the world who sets up an account, and it is free to use.

Therefore, the knowledge and sharing power of FDA-iRISK is exponential.  As more users use it and generate reports that are then available to the other users, a more consistent, well documented, systematic, structured and quantitative picture of risk in the food supply will emerge, as well as scenarios for reducing risk.

“Information provided by iRisk can aid in developing global scientific exchanges aimed at maintaining and developing agricultural markets around the world,” according to Jamilah (Fagbene) Cassagnol, an international trade specialist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

FDA-iRisk is supported by an exceptional project team. FDA staff members Sherri Dennis, Yuhuan Chen, David Oryang, Regis Pouillot, Karin Hoelzer and Susan Cahill developed the tool in collaboration with Risk Sciences International, RTI International and the Institute of Food Technologists.

Ultimately, for food safety, Monte Carlo shouldn’t mean taking a gamble.  Rather, it’s all about using a quantified, standardized and transparent methodology to better understand what interventions and controls will reduce the risk and improve our public health.

Ted Elkin is Director, Office of Analytics and Outreach, at FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

Food Defense – What’s Your Plan?

By: Ted Elkin and Julia Guenther

Ted Elkin

While food safety—preventing unintentional contamination from sources likely to be found in the food chain—is a priority for FDA, so is food defense—protecting our food from intentional contamination by saboteurs, terrorists or other criminals.

Such an incident, should it occur, could have widespread public health and economic consequences. Therefore we work hard every day to minimize such risk.

In the last decade, FDA has provided various tools, resources, guidance, and information to the food industry to help them prevent intentional contamination. We work closely with state and local governments, as well as with the food industry, to better understand the vulnerabilities in the food system and identify the appropriate strategies to protect the food supply.

Julia Guenther

Recently, we released a new tool that will help the owners and operators of food facilities develop customized food defense plans to minimize the risk of intentional contamination.  It’s a software program called the Food Defense Plan Builder and it’s designed to be easy to use. This desktop tool can be downloaded free of charge at www.fda.gov/food/fooddefense/.

This exciting new tool guides users through a series of substantive questions about the user’s food facility and the food manufactured, processed, packed, or held there to help the user develop a facility specific food defense plan. The tool will guide owners and operators by prompting them to ask the right questions in food defense planning: What are we already doing to protect our facility? What aren’t we doing that we should or could be doing? What are the vulnerable points within our system and how do we provide added protections? And it even helps with developing a plan to manage, track and prioritize the action steps identified using the tool.

While the use of the Food Defense Plan Builder is voluntary, we strongly encourage food facilities to create food defense plans. In our complex, global marketplace, it’s no exaggeration to say that an incident at one company could affect the whole world.

So, what’s your plan?

Ted Elkin, is Director, Office of Analytics and Outreach, at FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition

Julia Guenther, is a Policy Analyst, Food Defense and Emergency Coordination Staff, at FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition