ARLINGTON, Va. — Collaboration between the federal government and the food industry should be part of any new laws and regulations passed to enhance food safety, according to Jill Hollingsworth, group vice president, food safety programs, for the Food Marketing Institute here.
“You can't have a safer food supply if it's all in the hands of the government,” she said in a recent food safety webinar hosted by SN. “And likewise, industry needs to work in partnership with government. We have to look at it as a process we all play a role in.”
For example, she said, the government can't be expected to oversee all imported foods.
“We as an industry have to take responsibility along with the government for assuring that foods brought into the country are as safe as anything produced here.”
Hollingsworth was a panelist in the webinar, “Fixing the Food Safety Net: What Will it Take?” — along with Robert Brackett, senior vice president and chief science and regulatory officer for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Washington, and Dianna Pasley, director of food safety, Schnuck Markets, St. Louis, and chair of FMI's Food Protection Committee. Sponsored by Kraft Foods, the webinar took place on Aug. 20.
Against a backdrop of the major food recalls that have shaken the industry in recent years, the panelists addressed the current legislation under consideration by Congress — in particular, H.R. 2749, the Food Safety Enhancement Act — and the role the industry will play under new food safety laws and regulations.
Hollingsworth, who also manages FMI's Safe Quality Food (SQF) supplier certification program, said the legislation would support government-industry collaboration by “finding a way to use private sector certification, not to replace government inspection or enforcement, but to supplement it. Third-party certification can add an extra set of eyes, an extra safety net.”
Pasley agreed with Hollingsworth about the need for collaboration on food safety issues. “There has to be a dialogue between the industry and regulators,” Pasley said. “One needs the other to succeed.”
The food industry supports the focus on prevention in the legislation and in regulations, Hollingsworth said. “The [Food and Drug Administration] and the White House have been vocal in positioning prevention as a priority so there will be less need for intervention, fewer recalls and a reduction in foodborne illness.”
With finite resources, risk-based inspections will be FDA's approach to prevention, Hollingsworth noted. In addition, prevention will be addressed by a legislative requirement calling for food suppliers to formulate a food safety plan for their facilities. “We would like to believe that by the time legislation becomes law, all food manufacturers will already have food safety plans,” she said. “No one should produce food if they don't have a plan for doing it safely.”
The FDA's “enforcement philosophy” is also evolving so that it is more preventative than reactionary, said GMA's Brackett. For example, the agency will be expecting companies to recall products that may have become contaminated, not just those certain to be so, he said. FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg announced this month that the agency will be taking a series of steps intended to increase enforcement, he added.
Prevention can also be a focus at the retail level, noted Pasley. Schnucks has reviewed all of its food safety policies to determine if there are any other ways to “prevent additional risk,” she said. “We've increased our prevention focus tremendously.” Food safety training has also been implemented for everyone “from our CEO to our warehouse folks down to the store level, even our porters,” she said.
The pending changes in federal oversight should also aim at restoring consumer confidence in the integrity of the food supply, which gets undermined by each new major recall, and enhancing the credibility of the government's ability to protect food safety, Hollingsworth said.
Giving the FDA the power to issue mandatory recalls is one way the legislation would bolster consumer confidence, she said. “Mandatory recalls will hopefully be needed rarely, but we want consumers to know that the government has that authority.”
“The FDA needs this ability,” added Pasley. “It's been a long time coming.”
Another provision designed to boost consumer confidence is the reportable food registry, which the FDA is developing. It will enable a food company to enter information either on a known food safety event, or on something suspected to be a threat. “It will be a good early warning and tracking system,” said Hollingsworth.
It's not clear yet whether retailers will be required to submit information to the registry, Hollingsworth said, adding that it would be redundant for thousands of stores and restaurants to report the same recall to the FDA. But she hopes there will be a link between the registry and FMI's Food Recall Portal “so everyone will operate off the same information.”
Though it is part of H.R. 2749, traceability of foods through the supply chain is one area Hollingsworth believes would be better handled by the industry alone and “not necessarily one that can be legislated.” She pointed out that the Produce Traceability Initiative, sponsored by the Produce Marketing Association, among others, “is laying out a model where every case of produce will be electronically traceable by 2012.”
Country-of-origin labeling is an example, Hollingsworth said, of a government rule that requires a lot of effort by retailers “that could be better used elsewhere.” COOL implementation is “time-consuming and difficult, a huge paperwork issue for retailers,” added Pasley. “There's got to be a better way to get that information to consumers.”