When it comes to foodborne illness outbreak management and prevention, the US government is a frequent target of criticism. However, according to a reputed food safety researcher, various federal agencies have made several notable contributions in the field.
Leading the way
Donald Schaffner, extension specialist in food science at Rutgers University, told FoodProductionDaily the US government is a driving force in advancements in food protection.
“Over the last 25 years, a lot of the research and innovation in food safety has been driven by the changes in regulation,” he said.
However, Schaffner said, the FDA and other agencies have been known to take a few false steps. One example he gave is the uproar on the agency’s supposed crackdown on the use of wooden boards in the aging of artisanal cheeses; after word of the planned measure leaked, food producers voiced strong opposition, and the FDA backed down.
“The agency got out ahead of themselves on the problem, and they said some things they didn’t think through,” he said.
An ounce of prevention
The government, Schaffner pointed out, is moving toward a focus on preventing foodborne illness outbreaks, rather than simply reacting.
“One of the innovations in the past 25 years is quantitative risk assessment, to determine where to put our resources to combat food outbreaks,” he said.
He advised food safety professionals to look at the potential severity of a foodborne illness’ outcome when studying the bugs. For example, Toxoplasma in pork frequently gets forgotten, but it ranks near the top of pathogen risk assessments; this is because while the pathogen causes illnesses than campylobacter and others, it causes a much higher number of fatalities.
Among the most notable achievements of federal food forces, Schaffner said, are the creation of two high-tech tools.
“Two innovations driving our understanding of food innovation are FoodNet and PulseNet, web-based tools coming out of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),” he said.
Schaffer explained FoodNet originated in 1996; it allows food safety professionals across the US to document which illnesses are increasing, which are decreasing, and where incidents are taking place.
“The agency takes a number of FoodNet sites, and looks indepth at data coming in through those sites,” he said. “This has really revolutionized and driven our understanding of foodborne disease.”
PulseNet, another CDC tool, uses DNA fingerprinting to track strains submitted to the CDC, where researchers examine the strains and scan for patterns.
“When they find them, they track epidemiology and bring everything together,” he said. “PulseNet has detected dozens of multistate outbreaks that we might not otherwise have detected.”
Finally, Schaffner applauded the CDC for furthering the cause of pathogen response, and promoting understanding of managing and preventing outbreaks.
“The bar keeps being raised because the CDC keeps getting better at better at collecting and processing this information,” he said.
Schaffner spoke to FPD during IFT 2014, the annual event focusing on food ingredients, processing, packaging, and safety. The conference and expo took place in New Orleans June 21-24.