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Michael R. Taylor, J.D., Food Safety Education Conference

Remarks presented by Michael Taylor, Deputy Commissioner for Foods, before the 2010 Food Safety Education Conference, March 24, 2010, Atlanta, Georgia

I’m happy to be here and to talk about how FDA sees food safety education as part of our overall food safety strategy and the transformation of how FDA works to prevent food-borne illness. 

This is an extraordinary time for food safety.  The emphasis that other speakers have given to the President’s Food Safety Working Group is due.  From the standpoint of someone who’s worked at the agency level, at both FDA and USDA, it’s just so clear how essential it is that, in order to get big things done, there be White House support.  The President created this working group as an ongoing way for his leadership to be present in the process.  So it’s a very empowering and positive thing that is going to benefit us all as we go forward. 

One benefit is that it has helped to foster an unprecedented degree of cooperation between FDA and USDA.  FDA is developing produce safety rules right now, and we’re doing it in really close collaboration with USDA.  In fact, USDA sent one of their leading food safety experts over to work with us.  We recognize that we have to draw on the best expertise and apply the best knowledge to do our job. 

Importantly, as we’ve also mentioned, Congress is about to act.  What’s so significant is that the strategy that the Food Safety Working Group announced last summer, which is risk-based and prevention-oriented – a true public health approach to reducing foodborne illness and building a national integrated food safety system – those four ideas are now embraced by Congress.  They’re embedded in both of the bills that are pending and so whatever the result, I think we can envision it really giving us a modern mandate to have a true public health, prevention-oriented program that is all about working together and leveraging resources, public and private, to improve food safety. 

The central idea in the legislation is that we’ve got to systematically build in prevention from farm to table.  And I want to convey today how consumer education fits in with that approach to food safety—that comprehensive, systematic approach to preventing food-borne illness.  We know what the goal is.  It’s changing behavior to improve food safety—to prevent foodborne illness. 

The question is, how do we seize this moment and how do we fit that education effort into the overall strategy to improve food safety?  I have three messages that I want to convey.  The first is that food safety education needs to be seen in the context of this widely shared responsibility for food safety.  The second key message is that FDA is firmly committed to food safety education as an integral part of this food safety strategy.  It’s got to be central to what we do to improve food safety.  The third message is that it really is time to challenge ourselves, to ask the hard questions about how we can do food safety education better.  And that, of course, is what this conference is all about and it’s the work that lies ahead – really challenging ourselves to take food safety education to the next level. 

So let me talk first about this concept of shared responsibility across the farm-to-table spectrum.  I think it’s very familiar to everybody here, but I want to say a bit about how that translates into the specific activities that we’re undertaking at FDA.  Of course, it begins with growers on the farm.  We all know that hazards can enter the system beginning on the farm and at every stage along the way.  In the case of fresh produce, I mentioned that we are developing, for the first time, enforceable standards for growers to observe that will reduce the risks that the product will be contaminated at that point of production on the farm.  That’s the starting point for our initiative.

The second major piece of the farm-to-table spectrum, of course, is food processing.  This is a major focus of the food safety legislation that we expect will pass.  A major feature of our program is to build preventive controls into the operation of every food facility in this country.  FDA’s done this on a selective basis for seafood and juice.  And, of course, USDA’s done this for meat and poultry.  The mandate from Congress would be to build modern, preventive controls into the operation of every food facility, every food processing facility in the country.  We are beginning to work on those regulations even as we await the legislation.

The third major step along the way, from farm to table, is transport and storage.  Any point along the way where poor practices or other events can result in possible contamination need to be part of the strategy.  We’ll soon be issuing a Federal Register notice that’s aimed at identifying risks and soliciting input from the community to identify opportunities to reduce risks that occur in transport of food. 

The next major step along the way is retail.  FDA has long had a cooperative program with state and local agencies aimed at ensuring safe food-handling practices at retail, in grocery stores and in restaurants, where a lot of food handling happens and a lot of opportunities arise for risks to occur.  One of the things FDA’s done over the years is survey practices in retail establishments.  In fact, we will soon be issuing an analysis of the data that show that over the last decade or so there’s been improvement in some practices at retail.  And there’s also enormous room for more improvement.  There still are instances of high rates of noncompliance with basic food safety practices at retail, in terms of how food is stored, how it’s chilled, and also the personal hygiene issues that everybody here is so familiar with. 

So we have growing, processing, transport and retail.  We also have the import element of food safety, which is an enormous challenge and a very important one from a public health standpoint in today’s globalized food system.  Import oversight, strengthening FDA’s ability to oversee the safety of imports, is a central feature of the legislation that is pending in Congress, and I think it’s going to have a huge impact on our ability to protect consumers. 

So we see consumer education in the context of that systematic, farm-to-table approach to food safety.  We must ask ourselves how do we address what happens at that last stage along the way, where consumers are the final preparers?  Consumers are the last step before the event that potentially can result in foodborne illness—that is, people consuming food that’s contaminated at a level that’ll cause harm. 

We don’t regulate consumers.  We’ve got to figure out a way to treat them, nevertheless, as part of the food system.  And it’s really a matter of thinking about the consumer end of the spectrum as a final opportunity for prevention, in the context of this systematic approach, from farm to table.  That’s what we mean when we say that we want to make consumer education a central part of our food safety strategy. 

Food handler education on food safety is not new at FDA.  There’s a long history of work in this area.  Examples include working with the National Science Teachers Association on a curriculum that has reached 8,000 teachers and 3 million students.  On May 27, we’re having a satellite webcast on preventing illnesses that might result from infected food workers. 

We, like everyone else, are using and exploring the use of social media in recalls and in other situations to get information out.  We’ve just scratched the surface on that, but clearly, that’s a way to reach the elements of the population that have access to those media.  Of course, we must not forget that there are a lot of people who don’t have access to those media and that have to be reached as well. 

So part of what we’ll be doing at FDA is continuing those sorts of activities.  But we really want to make a new commitment.  We really want to take what we’ve done and take it to a new, higher level.  Part of that is simply recognizing and then acting on the recognition that consumer education is an integral part of the overall strategy.  It’s not just an add-on or not just something we do at a limited level, but something that is integral to our strategy – integral to achieving the public health goal of reducing foodborne illness.

We know that we need to do that in partnership—in collaboration with the community.  We need to recognize that we’re all in it together, that this community that’s gathered here comprises the people who do the work in this country on food safety education, to a very large degree.  The question is:  How can we at FDA be a catalyst and be part of a leadership activity that gets the most out of what you do, supports what you do and achieves our collective goal of preventing foodborne illness by changing behaviors to reduce risk? 

We have worked in a partnership, as many of you know, over the years, with the Partnership for Food Safety Education, one of the co-sponsors of this meeting.  And we really do see the Partnership as having played a very valuable role in the past, but also having a very important role to play in the future.  It has been a vehicle for building bridges among industry, government and consumer organizations, and public health organizations concerned about food safety.  It has been a vehicle for building consensus on strategy and on messages over the years.  It has played a role and I think it has the potential to play a greater role in leveraging multiple delivery channels to get the message out, including harnessing the food industry’s capacities – and, I believe, the food industry’s duty – to be contributing seriously to food safety education. 

We’d like to see the Partnership do more in all of these areas, including bringing together a larger and broader and more diverse community that has a stake in food safety, represented very well, I think, by the people in this room.  We think the Partnership can play a role in keeping the focus on education as part of the nation’s food safety strategy. 

Right now it’s easy to get attention on this issue.  The presence of the large number of people in this room shows that food safety is a headline issue.  But how do we organize ourselves to keep that focus on food safety education as an important part of the strategy in the public policy arena, in Washington and elsewhere?  What role can the Partnership play in this arena? 

We at FDA are actively engaged in talking with the Partnership about how we at FDA can expand our involvement and investment in the Partnership.  We want to work to broaden its engagement with the food safety education community so we can take food safety education to where it belongs—as a critical part of our public health prevention strategy.  Shelley Feist is here, the executive director, and she welcomes your ideas.  As we think about the role of the Partnership and the role of all of us in food safety education, we have to be asking ourselves some hard questions and challenging ourselves a bit. 

I’d like to touch on a few examples of the challenges and hard questions before I close.  The first is keeping the food safety education message science-based.  That’s been a premise, I think, of the work that all of you have done.  We have to have messages about behavior that are correct from a scientific standpoint.  We also have to have food safety education science-based in the sense that we deliver those messages in ways that we know work.  This is social science—not physical science or natural science—but it’s part of having a science-based strategy. 

We’ve also got to keep the education messages up to date.  A few years ago, we wouldn’t have known that we need to educate consumers about the potential hazards associated with peanut butter.  We wouldn’t have thought, necessarily, that we had to educate people to be sure they use microwaves properly to protect their food.  But these are just manifestations of the change in the food supply chains and the nature of hazards we’re addressing.  Education has to keep up with that in a science-based way.

The second challenge – and again, I’m preaching to the choir here – we’ve got to recognize that it’s not just about delivering quality information.  It’s about fostering motivation to change behavior, because without behavior change, the education doesn’t serve its purpose.  We’ve being doing social marketing for some time, but it needs to be built on.

The third challenge or hard question is:  How do we broaden the audiences?  How are we really sure that we are reaching the diversity of consumers?  There are social and economic differences; there are language differences.  There are differences in the way people access and process information.  We’ve got to do our work in a science-based way that reaches this diversity of audiences.

Another real challenge that’s going to require some investment is measuring the impact of what we’re doing.  We’ve got to be able to measure progress on these behavioral indicators that relate to reducing foodborne illness.  You know, this is difficult science.  This is difficult to evaluate, but I think if we don’t do that, we won’t know whether we’re making a difference.  And we all care about that. 

But we also won’t be able to sustain the effort.  I think, from a public investment standpoint, certainly, and I’m sure, from an industry standpoint, from a foundation standpoint, nobody’s going to invest in an effort if we can’t measure the progress that we’re making. 

And that gets to the question of how do we sustain the effort?  How do we make stepped-up investment and activity on food safety education last beyond the goodwill and energy of the people in this room and really become built into the system?  It has to be effective in order to be sustained, in order to attract funding.  How do we build the mechanisms to do that? 

So I’ve tried to outline why FDA sees food safety education for consumers as such an important subject that’s so central to our strategy.  I’ve outlined some of things that we need to do to enable education to fulfill its role in the food safety system and to play the role we want it to play in preventing food-borne illness.  The thing that I know, the thing that I have such enormous confidence in, is that as daunting as these challenges may be, the people in this room – the people you work with every day – can pull it off.  I know this is something we can do. 

We’ve got to do it as a community, and we’ve got to do it in a fairly hardheaded way so that we can win the support of those who will determine, in a public policy environment, whether we can make a sustainable difference on food safety.  I am just thrilled to be here.  I congratulate all of you for the work that you’ve done, and the work that you’ll be doing this week and in the weeks and months to come.  Thank you very much.