US: Challenges of state partnerships reflect needed focus for food safety and consumer confidence
Posted: December 31st, 2011 - 10:35am
Source: Leavitt Partners
Whether due to media focus, personal experience, or the recent occurrence of the outbreak, a consumer survey showed that an article on the cantaloupe Listeria outbreak was considered to be the most significant food-related story of 2011. The survey of 1,000 consumers, commissioned by Hunter Public Relations, revealed USDA’s MyPlate announcement (the new dietary guidelines campaign, which replaces the 20-year-old food pyramid) to be considered the second most significant food-related story, with the increase in global prices coming in third.
It is an area that needs attention not only to ensure food safety, but also to renew consumer confidence in the foods they buy. The Hunter survey noted that because of food-related news stories, consumers were changing their behaviors. While it did not relate specific behavior changes with specific stories, we can assume that concerns about food safety had some impact in at least some, which included:
61% changed their food habits in 2011 because of news coverage.
47% began paying more attention to the foods they eat.
45% decided to cook and eat more at home.
21% plan to pay more attention to labels on packaged foods.
Given this clear consumer concern about food safety and the changes in behavior that consumers exhibit as a result of food safety concerns, along with the growing consumer interest in food related issues, FDA faces mounting pressure to meet FSMA requirements and demonstrate to consumers the active role the federal government is taking to protect the food supply. As noted in previous newsletters, limited resources will require FDA to continue developing partnerships to aid in the implementation of FSMA. However, this is not easy, and a recent Inspector General’s report on FDA’s use of state inspection programs illustrates some of the challenges.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report, “Vulnerabilities in FDA’s Oversight of State Food Facility Inspections,” was originated in part by the fact that the peanut processing plant responsible for the 2009 peanut product Salmonella outbreak (the largest food recall in U.S. history) had been inspected multiple times by a state agency working on behalf of FDA. The situation lead to serious questions about the effectiveness of the state inspections, thus, the goals of the study were to determine:
the extent to which FDA enters into contracts with states to inspect food facilities.
the extent to which FDA ensures that states complete the contracted inspections.
whether FDA ensures that state inspections are properly classified and violations remedied. the extent to which FDA audits state inspections and addresses identified deficiencies.
Conducted because of these concerns which had arisen about the rigor of state inspections, the report’s findings, identifying significant weaknesses in FDA’s oversight of the inspections, appear to validate the concerns. The report focused on a variety of specific issues but in general one could conclude that this program lacked enough oversight and follow through.
While the report shows deficiencies that certainly need to be addressed, the results should probably not come as any great surprise when consideration is given to the ongoing lack of FDA resources. FDA made it a high priority several years ago to build a more robust integrated food safety system with the States. This was not a new concept and there was a lot of momentum from both FDA and States to make it work. The general strategy was to develop consistent standards and provide training to the States to ensure a full understanding and consistency. To do this effectively is expensive and there are simply not the resources of dollars or people to make this work as well as it needs to.
As such, even though FSMA encourages such partnerships with the states, it is an area that does need to be closely watched if this is to be an initiative of the future. Similar to the foreign third-party audits allowed by the Act, we need to ensure that all domestic facilities are inspected to the same standard whether conducted by the FDA or a state representative, and that all are properly trained in that standard.
Both the HHS report and the consumer survey show some of the challenges that will continue as the food industry continues to face pressure to provide high-quality, safe food to their customers and be responsive to new regulatory requirements. They are challenges which can only be resolved through partnerships with industry as well as government agencies, and by working through the collaboration, teamwork, and standardization that that will entail.