International Fresh Produce Association’s (IFPA) BB #:378962 chief food safety and regulatory officer, Dr. Jennifer McEntire, will step away from her role with the association on May 5. IFPA chief food safety officer to leave in May – Produce Blue Book
McEntire has worked with the IFPA and its parent association, the United Fresh Produce Association, since 2016.
After over twenty years in the industry, she has become one of the nation’s most highly respected experts in food safety. She is leaving because she is “looking to rebalance her personal and professional life and will continue to support the industry through select consulting engagements,” according to an IFPA press release.
The Produce Reporter took this opportunity to interview Dr. McEntire on her insights into the produce industry and food safety. This exclusive interview was conducted by email in early March 2023.
You have decades of experience in food safety. What changes strike you as most significant since the time you started?
I began with United Fresh Produce Association in July 2016, when the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) rules were still pretty fresh, and prior to the romaine-related outbreaks. A lot has changed as a result of the rules and the outbreaks. There have been many changes in practices, but also in attitudes and in the people entering the produce safety profession. Collectively, I think the most significant change is the collaboration and sharing of information between different companies, commodities, parts of the supply chain, the research community, and other stakeholders with roles in produce safety. The “we’re in this together” approach has broken down silos, allowing exponential improvement in the application of enhanced food safety practices. The bar has been raised.
In what areas of produce safety do you see the most progress?
The fresh produce industry has always taken great pride in producing safe and healthful products, but over the past several years there has been an explosion of produce safety research that’s allowed the industry to be more deliberate and focused in implementing protective practices. I did my doctoral work with Listeria monocytogenes, so I’m especially knowledgeable about that pathogen, but the improvements in environmental monitoring (as part of an overall sanitation program) really stand out. The produce industry mindset has shifted from “we’re a raw agricultural commodity, and we don’t have a lot of control” to “we’re food producers, and we’re going to use current tools, and invest in new tools, to produce the safest product we can.”
In what areas do you still see the need for the most progress?
There is always room for improvement. And the risks are always changing: this is probably the greatest challenge to produce safety in the future. As soon as the industry finds a way to mitigate a risk, we’re faced with, for example, an extreme weather event that changes the risk profile. Practices that are sufficiently protective today may not be adequate tomorrow. The attentiveness to change and the constant reevaluation of practices are the areas where we can do better. Food safety practices are often based on buyer and/or audit requirements. That’s not going to be enough to protect public health, given the dynamic nature of risk.
Could you comment on the most overlooked points the public needs to know about produce safety?
The most important thing for consumers to know is that produce is incredibly healthy. The risk of foodborne illness is incredibly low compared to the risk of long-term health issues associated with diets low in fruits and vegetables. The low risk is the result of tremendous effort, 24/7, within the industry. I’ve seen outlandish statements suggesting that growers happily use contaminated water to irrigate crops. These grossly inaccurate portrayals leave consumers with the impression that the produce industry doesn’t care enough about food safety, and nothing could be further from the truth.
There are areas of miscommunication between the produce industry and the public. What are the chief areas in which the industry fails to understand public concerns?
Scientists are trained to rely on facts and data. Every time we have a foodborne illness outbreak or safety challenge, consumer fear, skepticism, and lack of understanding often drives the stories we see in the news. This gets amplified more when the outbreak affects someone you know. I don’t think it’s a failure of understanding as much as an opportunity to improve how we share the stories of our industry’s everyday work in delivering safe, nutritious fruits and vegetables to shoppers and diners in a way that builds confidence and trust.
There has been tremendous controversy about the failures of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), especially during the last couple of years. Where and how do you think FDA needs to improve the most?
Early in my career, I was a visiting scientist at FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) and was blown away by the agency’s remit. The scope of their responsibility has increased exponentially over the past decade, while their staffing levels haven’t—resulting in challenges in prioritizing issues and creating an environment of “analysis paralysis.” Since the FDA commissioner position is a political appointment, which changes with each presidential administration, it is often filled with an acting commissioner, which has a trickle-down effect in creating a division of leadership, program siloing, and differences in culture and priorities. The recent Reagan-Udall Foundation report did a thorough job of diagnosing the issues and offering solutions. IFPA maintains that a culture change, driven by a leader who has the authority to get the job done, is needed. I have worked with many talented and dedicated professionals at FDA, and I remain hopeful our industry will soon see FDA leadership adopt and promote a culture that promotes collaboration, transparency, efficiency, and effectiveness.
Some have suggested that the best answer to public policy about nutrition and food safety is to separate out FDA, SNAP, and similar functions and assign them to a newly created Department of Food and Nutrition, headed by a cabinet-level secretary. Do think this would be a good option?
The idea of a single food safety agency is one that has been debated in D.C. circles for years by both consumer advocates and legislators. The challenge is that it would require a heavy lift of Congress to rewrite laws and build a new agency framework at a time when elected officials have an already full policy agenda.
Whether it is a new cabinet-level department or a more thorough reform of the human foods program in FDA, the bottom line is, we want food to be safe and nutritious. We want reasonable enforcement of clear, appropriate, science-based regulations to protect consumers and ensure a level playing field within the industry. If there’s a way to get there by adjusting the current system as opposed to dismantling FDA and looking to Congress to write a whole new set of laws, then let’s take the path of least resistance. If we find that we can’t achieve these outcomes within the current structure, we should keep our options open to alternate structures that will protect public health.