Roberta Wagner was the moderator at a public meeting in Washington, D.C. recently when she heard from James Frey, whose mother died of listeriosis following ingesting a contaminated Safeway caramel apple.
"It kind of caught me off guard a little bit," Wagner, the deputy director for regulatory Affairs for the center for food safety and applied nutrition at the Food and Drug Administration, said.
With food recalls flooding headlines almost daily, it seems no product is untouchable.
Still, Jennifer McEntire, the vice president of science operations at the Grocery Manufacturers Association, who did her doctorate on listeria, said the food supply is more safe now, than ever.
She says that previously, these problems might have flown under the radar.
"I think it's unfortunate if people perceive that the food supply is less safe because there are recalls," she said.
New technology aiding food safety
McEntire said the Blue Bell recall is going to deepen the understanding behind listeria, and that the FDA’s work could help determine how little exposure to listeria it takes to make people sick.
Wagner, a 29-year veteran of the FDA, said while the Blue Bell investigation is still open, it's clear there were not enough preventive strategies implemented, and had the Food Safety Modernization Act been in place, this situation probably wouldn’t have occurred.
She added full genome sequencing, a relatively new technology, has helped the FDA with its determinations, with DNA in the specific Blue Bell products linked to listeria. The process has enabled them to confirm DNA dating back to Blue Bell items since 2010.
She added that as of now, the Blue Bell and Jeni’s recalls are not connected, though that’s not officially determined, as well as that most recalls are allergen-related.
FSMA and its implementation
Impending changes from the FSMA aim to increase safety across the supply chain.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science outlined the president’s fiscal year 2016 budget, and notes the budget calls for $1.6 billion to bulk up food safety, including $303 million to the FDA to put new food safety standards in place under FMSA.
"In the industry, the larger players have been up on food safety for quite some time." McEntire said the regulatory changes will be more related to the documentation requirements put in place. She said smaller and medium-sized companies might be in for more of an overhaul.
Regarding the supply chain and impending FMSA changes, she said "It depends where you are. If you are a retailer, it doesn’t impact you too much. If you are a foreign supplier of food products, you may be in for quite a surprise because the expectation will be your customers, those who will be importing your products will now be looking at your products quite critically and making sure that they meet the U.S. level of safety."
She added some farms will now be regulated by the FDA, something that hasn’t happened before.
The FSMA’s rules finalization and implementation varies depending on the size of a manufacturer, and Wagner said the FDA is on target to follow through with its schedule.
Wagner is currently working on Phase II FMSA implementation, gaining industry compliance with new rules.
"For facilities, the rule that's gonna apply is the preventive controls for human food facilities and if it's finalized as proposed, then it’s gonna require that food facilities really take a good look and evaluate the hazards in their operations that affect food safety," Wagner said.
She added that there’s a large record-keeping requirement now. "Things are gonna happen even in the best-run operations. That is just the nature of the food business."
She said facilities will have to have plans in place for if and when such problems arise, as much of the industry already does, and the FDA will want to see that it followed procedures.
“If this is done right ... we really shouldn’t have unsafe food getting out into the marketplace, recalls should be highly decreased in numbers, we should have less preventable foodborne illnesses."
McEntire said the proposals for a single food agency would ultimately keep organizations separate, but under the same umbrella, and, in her opinion, cause more red tape and bureaucracy instead of improving food safety.
Wagner said the FDA's focus is on implementing the FSMA, and if done correctly, it will in itself put together a more integrated national food safety system.
Wagner and McEntire are scheduled to speak at the Food Safety Summit in Baltimore. Food Dive spoke to both by telephone.