Focus on Food Safety: Initiative Calls on Government, Industry, Consumers to Stop Food-Related Illness

Article excerpt

Most people don't give much thought to food safety until a food-related illness prompts concern. But the threats are real, numerous and varied, as headlines in recent years have documented: E. coli 0157:H7 in meat and apple juice, Salmonella in eggs and on vegetables, Cyclospora on fruit, Cryptosporidium in drinking water, and, most recently, Hepatitis A virus in frozen strawberries.

The U.S. food supply is among the world's safest. But as many as 9,000 Americans -- mostly the very young and elderly -- die each year, and millions more are sickened, as the result of a food-related illness, according to government estimates.

The Clinton administration has proposed a ambitious, $43-million Food Safety Initiative that, if fully funded by Congress, is designed to reduce the incidence of food-borne illness by strengthening and improving food safety practices and policies. The initiative includes expanded education efforts aimed at consumers, food service workers, and various other segments of the food community; enhanced food safety inspection and monitoring efforts; an increase in research to develop new and more rapid methods to detect food-borne pathogens and to develop preventive techniques; and improved intergovernmental communications and coordination of response to food-borne outbreaks, as well as expansion of the nationwide FoodNet system, which gathers data on the occurrence of food-borne illnesses.

"The Food Safety Initiative is extremely important in reducing food-borne illness in the United States," says Janice Oliver, deputy director of the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN). "The illnesses and deaths that are occurring [now] are just not acceptable." Joe Madden, Ph.D., CFSAN's strategic manager for microbiology, adds, "We have limited resources but through the Food Safety Initiative, we can identify those foods that cause the most problems. We can direct our resources to focus on those foods from production to processing."

In January 1997, President Clinton announced he would request $43.2 million for the 1998 budget to fund a nationwide plan aimed at improving the safety of the nation's food supply. A 50-page report, "Food Safety From Farm To Table," was prepared at the president's request by the Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Environmental Protection Agency; released in May, the report outlines recommendations on improving U.S. food safety.

The centerpiece of the inspections segment of the initiative revolves around the HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) concept, a science-based preventive approach to safe food production. Industry identifies possible points in food production, manufacturing and transportation where contamination could occur, called "critical control points," and then puts control measures in place. FDA's seafood HACCP regulations go into effect in December 1997, and USDA is in the process of implementing HACCP regulations for meat and poultry. FDA will also propose preventive measures, including HACCP, for the manufacture of fruit and vegetable juices, while USDA and FDA jointly will propose HACCP for eggs and egg products.

"HACCP itself varies from plant to plant and product to product," says Karen Carson, food science policy coordinator on CFSAN's executive operations staff. "HACCP causes a company to go in and analyze the system they're using internally. It's preventive in nature. Rather than depending on end-product testing, HACCP controls can help ensure that the end product is safe."

"Food sampling is not the way to make sure food is safe," explains Madden, "because, if a pathogen is statistically present in low numbers, it will be difficult to locate. For example, if you have something present in a 0.1 percent level and you look at 60 samples of a given lot, there's a 94 percent chance of not finding it. …