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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

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Food Safety and Consumer Confidence in the Global Food System

 

China International Food Safety and Quality Conference and Expo
Shanghai, China
November 7, 2012

 

As prepared for delivery by
Michael R. Taylor
Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine
U.S. Food and Drug Administration


Welcome

Good morning. First, let me thank the conference organizers for inviting me to speak here again and thanks also to my colleagues in the Chinese government, who have given me a very warm welcome this week. 

We at FDA place great importance on our working relationship with AQSIQ and other counterparts in the Chinese government. We have much in common as we work to modernize our food safety systems at home and strengthen our mutual ability to assure the safety of food that is traded between our countries.   

And I am very pleased to participate again in this conference, because it brings together many members of the global food safety community, from both the public and private sectors, and gives us a chance to discuss common goals and how we can collaborate to achieve them.

Food Safety and Consumer Confidence

I have chosen as my theme today the goal of ensuring consumer confidence in the safety of food in today’s global food system. The most fundamental purpose of our food safety efforts is, of course, to make food safe and thus protect people from harm. But consumer confidence is an important goal in its own right. 

Individuals and families everywhere want the peace of mind that comes from knowing the food they put on the table is safe. And we are all better off from a public health perspective if consumers can choose a healthy, diverse and economical diet without having to worry about food safety.

Consumer confidence also has big economic implications. It provides the foundation for the growing global trade in food, as well as robust domestic markets that are open to innovative products and technologies. And we know that when major illness outbreaks and contamination incidents damage consumer confidence in a particular commodity or sector, the loss of sales can be significant and take a long time to recover.

So, we operate in a world where consumer confidence is a key pillar of the global food system and consumer expectations for food safety are high.   Most consumers understand that food is not risk free. They are not asking for the impossible. But they do expect that everyone involved in producing, processing, transporting and marketing food is doing everything they reasonably can to prevent problems and make food safe.

And that is the expectation we are all working to meet, as this conference so strongly demonstrates. I congratulate the organizers and participants for the many working sessions featuring new food safety technologies and best practices the food industry can use to prevent safety problems.

Governments worldwide are also working to meet consumer expectations for food safety and to strengthen public confidence. In the United States, consumers and the food industry came together to support passage last year of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. China is working to implement the comprehensive food safety modernization law it adopted in 2009. India is implementing the Food Safety and Standards Act of 2006, and Europe has been working for over a decade to strengthen its food safety policies and institutions. 

Other countries are pursuing similar food safety initiatives. The Canadian Senate recently passed the Safe Food for Canadians Act to strengthen food safety oversight, and, just to underscore the global sweep of the food safety modernization movement, the Dominican Republic, Madagascar, and Vietnam, to name a few, are pursuing modernized food safety laws, driven by the same public health, consumer confidence and economic goals that motivate food safety modernization in the United States and China.

This global movement to improve food safety and strengthen consumer confidence is something we should celebrate. And I applaud all of those here and around the world who are working hard to make the movement a success. 

In my limited time today, I want to make one important point about food safety and consumer confidence. And it’s simply this: the things we need to do to improve food safety are the very same things we need to do to strengthen consumer confidence. These are not two separate efforts. Food safety and consumer confidence are the product of a common effort that includes five key themes:

1.     food industry commitment and responsibility for food safety;

2.     a comprehensive systems approach, from farm to table;

3.     credible and effective government oversight;

4.     genuine public-private collaboration and partnership; and

5.     transparency on the part of industry and government.   

Key Themes of a Food Safety System that Earns Consumer Confidence

Let me say just a few words about each of these themes, starting with the food industry’s commitment and responsibility for food safety.

All of us here know that the food industry has primary responsibility and capacity for producing safe food. And we know that the commitment of top-level business leaders in food companies is a prerequisite for food safety success. This is because food safety requires careful planning, investment of company resources, and sustained effort at the working level, every day, where food is produced, processed and handled.

Most companies take their food safety responsibility very seriously, as evidenced by the strong participation in this conference, and many companies have been at the forefront of innovation in preventive control and verification systems. 

Many of the world’s largest companies have also come together through the Global Food Safety Initiative and other ventures to share best practices and collaborate in strengthening private sector verification and certification efforts. These efforts take food safety out of the realm of competition between firms and recognize that it is a common goal whose achievement benefits all. 

This is important, because not all companies make the commitment that is needed to meet public expectations for food safety, and when one company fails, many companies can be affected by market disruptions and loss of sales. This is just one way in which doing the right thing for food safety and maintaining consumer confidence are closely linked.  

Another link relates to how companies can recover when something goes wrong. No food safety system is perfect. Breakdowns of preventive controls are inevitable. The companies that can recover rapidly and maintain public confidence are the ones whose food safety system detects the problem early, minimizes its scope, and acts swiftly to protect consumers. This is good for both food safety and consumer confidence.

A second key theme for protecting both food safety and consumer confidence is the need for a comprehensive systems approach to preventing food safety problems – one that looks systematically not only at the operations within the walls of a single firm but at the entire supply chain, from farm to table.   This is nothing new for this audience, but we can never stress too much the need for everyone engaged in the global food system to understand and fulfill their food safety responsibility.

What matters to consumers, of course, is that food is safe when it reaches them, but we know that a breakdown at any point on the farm-to-table chain can introduce a hazard, allow a pathogen to grow, or miss an opportunity to eliminate or reduce the hazard. 

So, protecting food safety and maintaining consumer confidence requires doing what’s reasonably possible at each step along the chain to prevent or minimize a hazard that could cause illness. That’s what consumers rightfully expect us to do.

The third key theme involves credible and effective government oversight. Regulation must never be seen as a substitute for industry responsibility and commitment. On the other hand, history and recent experience have shown that government oversight and active engagement are crucial to food safety and consumer confidence. This is because there are some things only government can do. 

These include setting the standards that define acceptable levels of food safety performance and create a level playing field for industry; conducting the inspections and investigations that bring objectivity and accountability to the verification that standards are being met and that food safety problems are being solved; and, finally, building the international partnerships that are essential to food safety in a globalized food system.

Government also has a unique role to play in building the scientific foundation and knowledge needed for an effective food safety system. This includes surveillance systems for foodborne illness and contamination that enable us to understand the nature and scope of our food safety challenges, research on specific hazards and interventions that can inform both industry and government control efforts, and provision of guidance and technical assistance to industry, especially small- and medium-size firms who may lack internal technical capacity.

Consumers expect government to play an active role on food safety, and, when government fails in that role, food safety is jeopardized and consumer confidence suffers.

The fourth theme I want to stress is the need for genuine public-private collaboration and partnership on food safety. Government and industry have distinct but complementary food safety roles.  

Government sets standards, but it cannot get the standards right without input from industry, academia and other private sector experts. Government conducts inspections and investigations, but these are most effective when companies are operating within defined parameters for sound food safety systems, maintaining reliable records, and engaging in their own continuous verification and problem solving. And government invests in data collection and research, but can contribute more in this sphere with private sector input on the right questions to address, collaboration in doing the work, and sharing of data and research results.

In sum, food safety benefits and consumer confidence is strengthened when government, industry and other private stakeholders are working – and are seen working – in active partnership toward a common goal. We don’t want to blur the proper line between government and industry roles, but we want to build on the complementary aspects of those roles to mutual advantage.

Finally, transparency, on the part of both government and industry, plays a key role on food safety and consumer confidence. One of the very positive developments globally, including here in China, has been the candid and open recognition by governments that work is needed to modernize our food safety systems for a 21st century global food system. We know we can do more to prevent food safety problems, and transparency about this fact is the starting point for real progress – and for gaining consumer trust that we understand and are tackling today’s challenges.  

Transparency is also key to doing our work effectively, and can take many forms. In the United States, our notice-and-comment rulemaking process allows public input on proposed regulations before they are finalized, and that input can come from both foreign and domestic sources. At FDA, we use the internet to answer questions consumers and industry ask about our food safety program, which includes posting test data, inspection reports and other information to share what we know about food safety issues of concern to consumers and industry.

But we go even further than that by engaging directly with consumer and industry groups on a regular basis. Through such open, two-way communication, we better understand each other’s concerns and perspectives and build relationships that enable us to work together on food safety problems from a foundation of mutual respect and understanding.   

Transparency is essential to the credibility and effectiveness of governments, but it is also an expectation consumers increasingly have of the food industry when it comes to food safety. This can take many forms, including providing information about safe food handling practices for consumers and the company’s own food safety commitments and practices, and responding swiftly and openly to requests for information during recalls and other food safety incidents.

Transparency contributes to food safety and consumer confidence by demonstrating through word and deed that each of us is doing everything we reasonably can to prevent problems and protect consumers.  

FDA Food Safety Modernization Act

These themes of food safety and consumer confidence have relevance all across the globe as we work together to modernize food safety systems, and I am pleased that they are deeply embedded in the modernization mandate under which we are working in the United States, namely the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act that was enacted in 2011.

Our new food safety law is grounded in the primary responsibility and capacity of the food industry to produce safe food by implementing modern preventive controls, tailored to the hazards inherent in their operations and to what works most effectively and efficiently to minimize those hazards.

It directs the food industry and FDA to take a comprehensive, systems approach to preventing food safety problems, including a clear mandate for firms to manage their supply chains and for FDA to set modern standards across the farm to table spectrum and build a new import oversight system. 

The new law strengthens the public health effectiveness of FDA’s regulatory role, with new inspection and enforcement tools that will shift FDA’s focus from after-the-fact enforcement to real time prevention when firms are not properly implementing modern preventive controls. The Food Safety Modernization Act also emphasizes the importance of FDA’s scientific foundation, including a directive to identify the most significant foodborne hazards and devise science- and risk-based strategies to reduce them.   

Finally, our new law is elevating the role of public-private partnership, collaboration and transparency in all areas of our food safety program. Never before has it been so crucial to FDA’s success for us to work with all of our stakeholders to get the standards right, to support firms in complying through education and technical assistance, and to share information that improves the ability of all food system participants to understand and prevent food safety hazards.  

Conclusion

These themes I have outlined are not new, but they are persistent, and they will drive our food safety efforts for years to come because they are grounded in the reality of what it will take to modernize the global food safety system. 

The road to modernization is long. It comes with its share of twists and turns, but we know where we’re going, and we know how to get there. Now we just have to complete the journey.

If you look on FDA’s website at the Food Safety Modernization Act page, you will see how far we have come in the United States in our modernization journey. We are developing new prevention standards and new inspection and compliance strategies. We are building an entirely new import safety system. And we are forging new partnerships with our states, with foreign governments, and with industry, academic and consumer stakeholders to foster and support widespread implementation of modern food safety practices.

But there is much more to come. We will need the continued input and collaboration of everyone in this room and many other partners around the world. And, with that, the success of our journey is assured.      

Thank you for the opportunity to be with you today.