United Fresh: Food safety investigations board may be needed
The way that outbreaks of foodborne illness are investigated is not working and Congress should consider establishing an independent investigative entity like the National Transportation Safety Board, a key United Fresh Produce Association official told the group’s members at its Washington meeting today.
The current investigative system involving the Food and Drug Administration, the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, the Centers for Disease Control and state governments is an “inefficient and uncoordinated” patchwork that costs both companies and agencies money and erodes consumer confidence, said Jennifer McEntire, the vice president for food safety and technology at United Fresh.
McEntire noted government estimates that there are 48 million cases of foodborne illness each year and that the cost to society is $36 billion.
Fruit and vegetable companies should be encouraging people to eat their products because they are healthy, not advising them on how to avoid foodborne illness, she said.
Investigations into foodborne illness caused by fruit and vegetables is particularly inefficient because the shelf life of the products is so short, McEntire said.
McEntire said the government process of informing companies that there is an outbreak of foodborne illness is so slow that she often finds out about an outbreak first on Food Safety News, the news service of Bill Marler, a Seattle-based food safety lawyer.
McEntire said there needs to be an independent agency to investigate outbreaks similar to the National Transporation Safety Board that investigates accidents involving airplanes and other modes of transportation. McEntire said the NTSB has a team ready at all times to start an investigation, while federal food safety agencies are slow to start their investigations.
Companies participate in NTSB investigations because the agency is not a regulator and its findings cannot be used in court, she said.
In response to a question from the audience, McEntire said that the Food Safety Modernization Act should improve food safety but it will not stop all outbreaks because fruits and vegetables are grown outdoors and the risk of contamination cannot be eliminated.
McEntire urged United Fresh members to lobby members of Congress to provide more resources for food safety and hold a hearing on the food safety investigation issues. She acknowledged, however, that this is the first time that United Fresh has held a meeting on this idea.