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The work of food safety continues in 2021

Even as the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act turns 10 this week, food safety remains a work in progress.

FDA deputy of food policy and response Frank Yiannas said this week FSMA has to be a process, and food safety has definitely advanced in 10 years.

To open its weekly town hall webinar Jan. 6, Produce Marketing Association’s BB #:153708 Chief Science Officer Max Teplitski, noted the FSMA milestone but said, “so far it hasn’t delivered.”

Bill Marler

Food safety attorney Bill Marler with Marler Clark LLP said field crops have an eternal challenge.

“How do you grow a ready-to-eat produce in the open environment?” he asked. “It’s going to be an ongoing challenge.”

Canada came up with a solution last fall that didn’t sit well with leafy green producers. As of early October, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency requires that romaine importers must prove the product came from outside the Salinas (CA) Valley or have a lab confirmation that it has been tested and passes an E. coli inspection.

Drew McDonald

However, this approach simply treats the symptom not the problems, said Drew McDonald, Vice President Food Safety & Quality for Taylor Farms BB #:154001.

“I understand why Canada did it,” he said. “Many firms already test, so it’s not a huge impact. For those who don’t test, it’s a huge challenge, and many don’t ship product” to Canada right now.

However, he repeated a phrase that many in food safety ascribe: you can’t test your way to food safety.

“We need to use the current knowledge and data we have, and I don’t see enough curiosity about what they say,” McDonald said.

He said he thinks FDA has been helping, and he didn’t know of any leafy green producer in the Salinas area who didn’t interact with the agency last year.

The data, including whole genome sequencing (WGS), show similar pathogen strains keep showing up in outbreaks tied to the area, McDonald said, and that means it isn’t a magic cow or bird contaminating a crop over and over.

Marler said WGS is a useful tool that gives assurances that outbreak connections are correct, but scientists and food safety experts have a different standard of proof that exists in civil law, something he’s familiar with having represented many consumers who were sickened or killed by food products.

“In civil litigation, the standard is over 50 percent, or more likely than not,” he said. “Scientists look for 95 percent, and it’s a different burden of proof.”

Both agreed FDA is on a good path with food safety, and that’s unlikely to change much with a Biden administration.

“The next administration looks a lot like Obama’s,” Marler said. “There was an assumption that the Trump administration was unwinding food safety” but FDA continued to move forward with FSMA and little political interference.

“Food safety isn’t political,” McDonald said.

Greg Johnson is Director of Media Development for Blue Book Services