Strengthening Science at FDA to Improve Food Safety

By: Michael R. Taylor, J.D.

Science is the foundation—the critical underpinning—of everything FDA does to protect public health, and food safety is no exception.   Congress recognized this basic fact when it enacted the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which is all about harnessing science to understand and prevent food safety hazards.

Mike Taylor, J.D.We are called on to develop science- and risk-based safety standards for a wide variety of fresh produce operators and processing facilities that work under highly diverse conditions and may confront different hazards.  In overseeing implementation of these standards, we are expected to prioritize our domestic inspections and import oversight based on level of risk.  And, as an overarching guide to how we target our risk reduction efforts, Congress has directed FDA to identify what we consider the most significant contaminants in food and devise strategies for addressing them. 

These scientific demands are compounded by the changing nature of the food supply itself and the risks it poses.  We are seeing a dizzying array of new foods in the marketplace, many produced using new technologies.  We are seeing new pathogens emerge, and “not so new” pathogens that show up in foods where we never expected them to be, such as the new strains of disease-causing E. coli in sprouts and diverse strains of Salmonella in produce and peanut butter.   We’re also seeing changes in the practices and profile of the consumers we seek to protect, including an increase in the percentage of the population that is particularly “at risk” for foodborne illness—including the elderly, pregnant women, and immune-compromised individuals.

To meet these challenges, we need new scientific data, new scientific tools, and a new scientific understanding of food safety problems and solutions.  FDA is blessed with a strong cadre of scientists who are tackling these needs through both basic and applied research.  They need and have our strong support.   To take full advantage of our scientific capacity, however, we must move forward strategically.

This means defining our mission needs carefully, prioritizing our research and other scientific efforts in accordance with those defined needs, and building bridges among scientists inside and outside FDA to generate synergies, make best use of resources and widely share the fruits of our collective scientific effort.  

To guide these strategic efforts, we recently created the position of chief science officer and research director.  Since July, Dr. David White has been acting in that position and chairing our Science and Research Steering Committee (SRSC).   Consisting of laboratory and scientific leaders from across FDA’s food safety and veterinary medicine program as well as the National Center for Toxicological Research, the Office of International Programs and the Office of the Chief Scientist, the SRSC has been working for two years, much of it under the leadership of Dr. Jeff Farrar, to strengthen research priority-setting and coordination.  

Among many other things, the SRSC has launched an annual research conference to bring researchers together and last week convened a second annual program-wide research prioritization meeting in which program and research leaders collaborated in shaping our 2013 research agenda.

This work could not be timelier as we face constrained resources and must pay careful attention to priorities and the public health payoff from our research.   The work FDA scientists are doing now to study how common and persistent Salmonella can be in tomatoes and to develop rapid methods to detect Salmonella in animal feed and pet food are good examples of the research we need to be doing.   We are also working at a time of exciting opportunity to take the scientific underpinnings of our public health work to entirely new levels. It is utterly essential to public health and to the success of the nation’s food system that we meet today’s scientific challenges and take full advantage of today’s scientific opportunities.  We are committed to that.  We are fortunate to be working with talented scientists who are more than up to the task.  And we look forward to doing this work in partnership with the scientific community at large.

Michael Taylor is Deputy Commissioner for Foods at FDA

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