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The U.S. Strategy for Improving Food Safety in a Global Marketplace

Speech by Michael Taylor, Deputy Commissioner for Foods, U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Before the China International Food Safety and Quality Conference and Expo
November 10, 2010

Welcome

It’s a great pleasure to be here in Shanghai, the center of finance and trade in China, as well as a city renowned for its historical landmarks.  We visitors from the United States, where a building that is 200 years old is considered ancient and historic, understandably marvel at the great history here, as well as at your country’s beauty. 

This is only my third trip to China, the first being just five years ago.  I was a professor then and came to Beijing with some other U.S. food safety experts to participate in dialogue with Chinese government officials about the draft food safety law then under consideration.  I’m not sure how helpful we were to our Chinese hosts, but they were gracious. And it was a very informative dialogue conducted in the spirit of learning from each other – by sharing experiences and lessons gained from our respective efforts to improve food safety systems and protect consumers from harm.

I am very pleased to be back in China, albeit in a very different position, as head of FDA’s food safety and nutrition regulatory program.  I now have official responsibility within FDA for strengthening the U.S. food safety system and working with our Chinese counterparts, as they work to improve food safety in China and as we work together to ensure the safety of food traded between our countries. 

But I come in the same spirit of dialogue and learning as on that first trip.  My colleagues and I have had very productive discussions with our government counterparts in Beijing, and I’m highly appreciative of the opportunity to be here in Shanghai at this great international conference.  Here we can continue the dialogue with an even broader set of partners and stakeholders in government, industry, academia and the consumer community.  

So, I want to very sincerely thank our hosts for inviting me, and also for their visionary spirit in providing this wonderful venue for the 4th Food Safety & Quality Conference.  I know that I can speak for my colleagues in the U.S. government when I say that we strongly support this conference as a valuable way to facilitate the exchange of knowledge and build collaboration among food safety stakeholders worldwide. 

The importance of information exchange and collaboration on food safety among all participants in the global food system cannot be overstated.  With it, we will succeed.  Without it, we will fail.

Consumer Expectations for Safe Food

We are here today, engaging in dialogue, because consumers world-wide have high expectations for safe food, and we all share responsibility for meeting those expectations.  The fact that consumers have such high expectations is no surprise.  People depend on food for sustenance, survival, and health; in today’s complex and far-flung food system, most people depend on others to produce the food they eat.  And, regardless of where food comes from, people want to be able to buy food and share it with their families and friends with confidence the food is safe.  

Consumers understand that food is not risk-free.  But they do expect that everyone involved in producing, processing, transporting and marketing food is doing all they can to prevent problems and make food safe. 

In the United States, we’ve taken on the challenge of improving food safety with support at the highest level of government.   At the beginning of his term, President Obama appointed a high-level Food Safety Working Group to coordinate and implement an agenda for meaningful change and a sharpened public health focus on prevention. The ultimate goal of the President’s Food Safety Working Group is to transform a system that was built primarily to react to food safety problems and outbreaks of food-borne illness after they occur, to one that prevents contaminated food from entering consumer markets in the first place.

A Prevention-Oriented, Systems Approach

The prevention model is the right model, but it is not easy and it cannot be implemented by one individual or entity, and certainly not by government alone. 
Instead, making safe food and keeping it that way requires a systems approach in which preventive steps are taken at each point where hazards could be introduced, from the farm to table.   And that requires all of us working together—industry, government, and food handlers in restaurants and at home. 

This systems approach requires that each person involved understand his or her responsibility in the farm to table chain.  Industry—from growers in the field to processors in manufacturing facilities—has the primary responsibility for producing safe food by implementing prevention-based controls to keep hazards from occurring.  Government has an essential responsibility too, of course, and that is to set appropriate, science-based food safety standards for food producers and processors, and then to ensure that those standards are met. 

But food safety doesn’t stop there.  Once food is produced, it must be handled properly by those who transport food to where it will be sold and by retail operations that sell the food.  Food handlers in restaurants and consumers in the home are the last step where an event could happen to contaminate food to a level that could cause harm, and they are the last opportunity for intervention.  In this farm-to-table vision of how we make food safe, everyone has a responsibility.

Science-Based Standards and Interventions

The commitment to a farm-to-table, prevention strategy for food safety must be backed up by a commitment to the basic and applied sciences that are needed to determine what the key hazards are and what preventive measures and interventions are needed at each step to minimize them.  It is one thing to know it’s better to prevent problems than to fix them after the fact.  It’s quite another to understand clearly what problems are and how to prevent them.  This requires research, data collection and analysis, and it requires learning from each other. 

For example, in the United States, we have had several outbreaks in recent years involving produce.  So we have embarked on a challenging project to develop prevention-oriented standards, based on scientific understanding about what growing, harvesting and packing practices will help prevent hazards that may be introduced on the farm.  This is difficult due to the diversity of crops, size of operations, and growing practices.  To help ensure that we develop the best regulations possible, we have visited farms around our country and met with interested stakeholders to get their input on what is effective and feasible.  And because so much of our produce is imported, we recognize the need to engage the international community on this as well.

We also recently implemented new science-based requirements for shell egg facilities, involving preventive measures and testing by producers to verify the effectiveness of their egg safety plans, and we’ve begun inspections to ensure the new rules are implemented.  Based on the science, we believe the new requirements for shell eggs will contribute toward reducing Salmonella illnesses from these products.

Setting science-based standards and implementing interventions along the farm-to-table chain is a continuing and likely never-ending process.  We must be ready to adjust our policies and our programs as new information becomes available about potential hazards and as new pathogens and chemical contaminants emerge in foods that either weren’t there before, or that we were unable to detect.  A good example is the emergence of the pathogenic strain E. coli O157:H7 in beef some 30 years ago, and the fact that it is now affecting produce as well.  We must be vigilant scientifically about emerging hazards in order to address them through our food safety systems.

Globalization and Import Safety

Having a strong domestic food safety program is a priority in the United States, as I’m sure it is in the countries represented here today.  But, as all of you know, we must work together in the context of the global food safety system to help ensure the safety of foods produced in other countries.  

Globalization has increased the variety of foods available to all of us, which certainly we can all appreciate.  But globalization has presented its own food safety challenges, which must be addressed.  These stem from the sheer volume of foods traded, the amazing diversity of products sent from country to country, and the long distances food travels. 

Consumers expect the food they purchase to be safe, regardless of whether it is produced domestically or in another country.  In the global marketplace, we at FDA believe that those producing, marketing and exporting food to our country, along with those importing food into our country, have a responsibility to manage their supply chains.  They must ensure that food entering the United States has been produced in accordance with the same prevention-oriented standards we are developing for U.S.-based producers and processors.  As in the domestic context, FDA’s import role is to establish and clearly communicate sound, science-based standards, including the responsibilities of importers, and to help ensure high rates of compliance with those standards through effective oversight. 

The special challenges posed by imports call for an oversight approach with multiple components.  We are working hard at FDA to design the set of tools and oversight practices we need, and we are working with Congress to obtain new authority to define the role importers should play in an effective import oversight system.  We think the foundation of the system must be strengthened importer accountability for ensuring imported food meets prevention-oriented food safety standards.  And we need help from Congress to establish and implement that principle. 

Importer accountability is crucial for success on import safety, but no one component by itself is enough.  We need to be doing a set of complementary things that together form a strong protective system to ensure import safety. 
First, we must actively engage with foreign governments and exporters in foreign countries to take advantage of the work they do to ensure food safety.  The recent posting of FDA staff in overseas regions, such as China, India, Europe and Latin America, will help us do that.  We must work with the regulatory authorities in other countries to strengthen capacity where needed and to help them and their exporting industry understand our standards and expectations.  We will be reaching out to potential partners in foreign governments and be proactive with technical cooperation, rather than reacting to a problem after it has happened.
Second, we are conducting more inspections in foreign countries exporting to the United States.  In fact, this year Congress gave FDA specific directions to increase the number of foreign inspection, and we expect to be able to conduct more than 900 foreign food inspections with funds Congress provided. We will use food investigators at our overseas offices as well as food investigators based in the United States.  The numbers will remain small in comparison to the number of overseas facilities shipping food to the United States, but targeted inspections of high risk facilities can improve our knowledge of practices in other countries and help foster compliance with our standards.  

Third, we also see a role for third party certification programs in import safety.  It is clear that FDA can’t be everywhere all of the time, especially when it comes to the oversight of imported foods.  We thus see a role for accredited programs, in which qualified third party agents—public or private—certify with transparency and accountability to FDA that imported products meet U.S. safety standards.  This can’t replace appropriate government oversight.  But it can help show whether a firm or facility is taking appropriate steps to meet its food safety responsibilities and inform how we target our inspection and compliance efforts.

Fourth, we see the increasing harmonization of food safety standards internationally as an effective way to raise standards for food safety.   This is where the Codex Alimentarius plays such a critical role.  For example, Codex has institutionalized preventive controls.  The key to successful harmonization is the use of sound science in the development of international standards.  We recognize and support the strong commitment of Codex to the science-based process, particularly the use of risk analysis in the development of its food safety standards.

Closing

In closing, let me summarize some key points about how the United States is improving its food safety system through a multi-faceted strategy that emphasize some important principles.

First, making food safe requires a systems approach, with everyone involved in producing, processing, transporting and handling food taking their responsibility seriously.

Second, hazards must be managed from farm to table, because they can be introduced anywhere along this chain.

Third, preventing problems in the first place is far better than finding them once they happen. 

Fourth, we need to stay current on the science of food safety and emerging hazards so we know when changes are needed in our policies and programs.

And, fifth, we must all work in the context of a global food safety system in order to protect public health.  Consumers expect their food to be safe regardless of whether it is produced domestically or imported.

But there is one more over-arching theme I want to emphasize – and that is the theme of dialogue and transparency.  In order to make real change and have public support, we must do our jobs in an open, participatory and transparent manner.   We can’t expect the public to trust what we do if we don’t explain and allow them the opportunity to share their views.  We can’t expect to develop effective requirements for industry that also are realistic unless we provide them the opportunity to contribute their input during the process.  And we can’t expect our trading partners to have confidence in our products unless we show them the controls we have in place to produce safe food.   

I see dialogue and transparency – and learning from each other – as the great purpose and value of this conference.  So, I wish you a successful conference. I thank you for the opportunity to be here with you.  And I look forward to continuing dialogue on how we can together assure consumers—and each other—that we indeed are doing everything we can to make food safe.