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Agencies Must Communicate to Increase Food Safety

May 23, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 76 million people in the United States fall ill annually with some sort of food-borne illness and that 5,000 such people die yearly.  Because responsibility for food regulation is spilt among 15 federal agencies—including the U.S. Agriculture Department (UDSA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA in the federal government alone—U.S. federal agencies must improve information sharing with each other as well as with state, local, and private organizations.  This improvement is critical in the fight against deadly bacteria such as E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria, to name but a few, which threaten thousands each year, according to a study released on Thursday.  There are also nearly 3,000 local health departments and retail inspection agencies, millions of agricultural producers, and myriad government and university researchers, nationwide, to the study says.

The 148-page report said the current system is flawed because thousands of local health departments, university researchers, corporations, and other institutions often collect data for their own use, with no mandate to share such critical information.  The researchers state that to improve the food safety network, incentives for government and private organizations to collaborate should be enacted to replace current obstacles to information sharing.  "We're missing opportunities to prevent illness," said Michael Taylor, a professor of health policy at George Washington University, who co-authored the report.  "We are missing opportunities to make food safer.  We don't have the best information about what the problems are and what the solutions can be," he added.

The report also noted that, individual government agencies have a sense of ownership that can deter data sharing and the food industry has its own issues, including competition and liability concern.  "The fact is that it's a system that's kind of evolved over the years so that you got all this fragmentation of responsibilities," said Taylor.

There have been numerous, dangerous food safety scares which have seriously concerned consumers, Congress, and federal health regulators in recent years, including E. coli-tainted spinach and peanut butter and pot pies contaminated with Salmonella, to name a few.  Some of these bacteria are becoming immune to current treatments and are evolving into drug-resistant and super-strains, such as with a recently emerging form of drug-resistant E. coli.  Also, a new strain of E. coli that comes from healthy plants and animals, but hurts humans, and is different than the E. coli passed from animal and animal-derived products has been recently discovered.

The study made some recommendations to improve the food safety system, including a Congressional or presidential mandate requiring all federal agencies to coordinate information collection and maximize data sharing among government and the private sector.  The study also recommended the creation—as part of the Department of Health and Human Services—a council that would include federal, state, and local officials that will work toward improving data collection and access.  This group will report annually to Congress about progress and obstacles.  Also, a panel comprised of researchers and consumer groups was recommended that would be convened to identify common problems and best practices.

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