Letter from the Editor: A coalition rising

Opinion

Those who work in the arena of public affairs risk more than paper cuts when they decide to work with their opponents. I know this from the years when I worked for developers in the Seattle area, and environmentalists and neighborhood activists were on the other side.

Some on our side did not like it when we began working with the opposition. The same was true for the other side. Before long, though, increased understanding and new friendships were producing results.

It’s pretty rare to see such coalitions come together. And food safety has not seen much coalition-building. Some food safety issues remain unresolved for years or decades.

But there are some risk-takers out there willing to work “in a broad coalition asking Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to meet with them to hash out a modernized, science-based approach” to reducing salmonella and campylobacter illnesses in poultry production.

Four top poultry producers — Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms, Butterball, and Wayne Farms — have joined the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and others to compel the U.S.Department of Agriculture to update and improve outdated food standards and protocols.

James Kincheloe, CSPI’s food safety campaign manager, calls this “a moment of unity.” It brings the four poultry producers together with CSPI, Consumer Reports, Consumer Federation of American, and Stop Foodborne Illness to revamp the poultry food safety system.

The newly formed coalition has written Vilsack, suggesting a meeting.

If the newly-formed coalition can hold together, it could be a game-changer. Salmonella and campylobacter from poultry annually sicken about 3 million people in the United States and cost about $6 billion a year. Those levels have not improved in 20 years.

The USDA even failed to reduce the rates of illness from these two pathogens after setting Healthy People 2020 goals targets. It is supposed to try again for 2030.

“While progress on reducing foodborne illness has been at a standstill, scientific knowledge of salmonella has greatly increased, and recognized best practices for campylobacter and other pathogens have advanced,” says the coalition letter to Vilsack.

“Science tells us that current performance standards do not effectively target the particular types of salmonella and the levels of bacteria that pose the greatest risks of illness, and the overall regulatory framework does not adequately harness modern tools for preventing and verifying control of the bacteria that are making people sick.”

The coalition letter outlined the following conclusions and principles:

• While current prevalence-based pathogen reduction performance standards are leading to reduced salmonella levels in products, the performance standard method is broken, and the standards are not producing the desired public health outcomes.

• Modernized standards should be objective, risk-based, achievable, enforceable, and flexible enough to adapt to emerging evidence and the latest science. Modernized standards should not stifle innovation. Instead, they should invite innovation and technology development.

• While the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) cannot directly regulate food safety practices on the farm, a modernized Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) framework should address risk reduction across the full production process from raw material to finished packaging, including defining the responsibility of poultry processors to consider preharvest practices and interventions in their HACCP plans and verify that suppliers of live birds have implemented scientifically appropriate risk-reduction measures in accordance with modern best practices.

• Salmonella and campylobacter should be addressed in parallel but separate proceedings as larger knowledge gaps exist for campylobacter than salmonella, and different timelines and risk mitigation approaches may be necessary. The coalition strongly encourages the USDA to review and reinvigorate programs around salmonella that exist within the National Poultry Improvement Plan.

• While science has advanced sufficiently to support regulatory improvements today, ongoing research is also needed to support continued progress toward reducing salmonella and campylobacter moving forward, including epidemiologic data and analysis to improve attribution of illness to specific commodities and products.

The Secretary of Agriculture will likely give this coalition a callback. It’s not just because Vilsack’s own food safety record could use some improvement, but also because his Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety is uniquely suited to work with this sort of group.   Before she moved over to USDA  as the Deputy last March, Sandra Eskin was known for bringing multiple stakeholders together to work on food safety problems from her previous perch at the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The bottom line, this is going to be one that’s worth watching.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)

Source: Letter from the Editor: A coalition rising

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