FDA’s Strategy of Creating Alliances

By:  Joy Johanson, MPH

Webster’s defines “alliance” as “an association to further the common interests of the members.” When it comes to food safety, the common interest is pretty clear–reducing the burden of foodborne illness in the United States where currently one in six Americans is likely to suffer a foodborne illness each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

To reach that goal, FDA has embraced a strategy of working with alliances for various foods aimed at education, training, and technical assistance for industry and government food safety officials.

Four bowls of sproutsThe latest is the Sprouts Safety Alliance, of which I’m a coordinator along with Stephen Grove of the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute for Food Safety and Health.

FDA’s first effort at taking part in an alliance was in 1994 when the agency mandated a hazard analysis and critical control point (HACCP) regulation for seafood.  Knowing that this was a sea change (pardon the pun) for the industry, FDA worked together with representatives of industry, the academic and research community, and government officials from all levels to create the Seafood HACCP Alliance.  By leveraging the knowledge and expertise of the various parties, the Seafood HACCP Alliance has over the years provided critical training and educational materials to industry and regulatory officials to meet the evolving challenges of seafood safety.

This model of knowledge creation and dissemination proved so successful that the Juice HACCP Alliance was created in 2001, when FDA put in place HACCP standards for the juice industry.

Now, in anticipation of the issuance of rules mandated by the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, three more alliances have been created in the last two years: the Produce Safety Alliance in 2010, the Preventive Controls Alliance in 2011, and now the Sprouts Safety Alliance.

In each case, the alliances are developing a core curriculum and training and outreach programs for stakeholders.  For instance, the Produce Safety Alliance held a meeting in Florida last year where stakeholders across the country had the opportunity to share existing educational materials and discuss what new materials were needed.  Since that meeting the Produce Safety Alliance has had working committees with members from 34 states focused on the job of developing the elements of a core curriculum.

The need for a sprouts alliance is obvious.  According to FDA data, between 1996 and 2010, 34 outbreaks of foodborne illnesses have been associated with sprouts in theUnited States.  These outbreaks have resulted in 2,150 cases of illness, 123 hospitalizations, and one death, and these numbers likely are an underestimate of the true public health burden from these outbreaks. 

Sprouts present a unique safety risk because the warm, moist, and nutrient-rich conditions required to produce sprouts are the very same conditions that are ideal for the growth of pathogens such as Salmonella spp. and E. coli O157.  So it is important that we enhance our efforts to identify and promote implementation of best practices in the safest possible production of sprouts. 

In developing its core curriculum and training and outreach programs, the Sprouts Safety Alliance will build on the significant work already performed in this area by a number of groups.  Such activities include the Sprout Safety Taskforce, formed between the Illinois Institute of Technology and a number of sprout companies, which has developed a Sprout Safety Audit Checklist for growers to use in reviewing their own operations and for use in sprout-specific third party audits.

The Sprouts Safety Alliance will have members from FDA, local and state food protection agencies, the food industry and the research/academic community. Like the other alliances, the Sprouts Safety Alliance is anchored at an institution with an established track record in food safety education and outreach.  FDA has provided a one-year $100,000 grant to the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute for Food Safety and Health. The Institute is also the headquarters for the Preventive Controls Alliance. 

We are eager to begin the hard work of our alliance with our partners because the common interest is so important: protecting consumers by ensuring that the sprouts industry has access to the best science-based knowledge on minimizing risk in the growing, harvesting, and handling of sprouts.                                                         

Joy Johanson, MPH, is Consumer Safety Officer for Produce Safety at FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

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