Promoting Food Safety in Puerto Rico
|Nilda Villegas, an FDA public affairs specialist, explains how to keep food safe from bacteria and prevent foodborne illness.|
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In Puerto Rico, federal and other stateside organizations working to educate people about food safety face unique challenges they don't encounter on the mainland.
Nilda Villegas, a San Juan-based Public Affairs Specialist with FDA's Office of Regulatory Affairs, says "There are socioeconomic and cultural factors, and particular situations regarding food handling practices, that have to be considered." For example, she says, "We've had to warn people against using raw eggs in a very popular local holiday drink called 'Coquito'. It's similar to the mainland's eggnog, but its main ingredient is coconut milk."
Another factor is language. Spanish is spoken almost exclusively throughout the island, which is a U.S. commonwealth. This means that workers with stateside agencies and organizations must be able to communicate in Spanish and that written materials must be translated.
Challenges such as these have been met for almost a decade by the Puerto Rico Partnership for Food Safety Education (PRPFSE), a collaborative effort involving FDA, the non-profit Partnership for Food Safety Education (PFSE), the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Puerto Rico's departments of Health and Education.
Using PFSE's National Fight BAC!® Campaign ("BAC" stands for "bacteria") as a model, the Puerto Rico partnership has worked to boost knowledge about food safety hazards, foodborne illness prevention, and safe food handling techniques among Puerto Rico's consumers, health professionals, educators, food service workers, and media.
The eight-member Puerto Rico group's achievements will be honored Sept. 18, 2007, in Washington, D.C., with recognition during a 10th Anniversary celebration for the Partnership for Food Safety Education. PRPFSE is one of two programs being recognized at the event featuring senior government officials and members of Congress.
"The recognition is well-deserved and especially appropriate during National Food Safety Education Month," says Howard Seltzer, National Education Advisor for FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN). "Under the leadership of Ms. Villegas, the consortium has educated thousands of the territory's consumers and food service workers, and trained hundreds of community leaders and government agency staff in the areas of safe food awareness, handling, and preparation."
PFSE's National Fight BAC!® Campaign teaches consumers nationwide about four practices—clean, separate, cook and chill—that can help reduce risk of foodborne illness.
The national partnership works to unite industry associations, professional societies in food science, nutrition and health, consumer groups, and the U.S. government to educate the public about safe food handling.
"Over the years, we have adapted the "Fight BAC!" program to our local needs," says Villegas.
The Puerto Rico partnership, founded in 1998 by Villegas -- with officials from the University of Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rico Department of Health -- developed an extensive consumer education campaign.
"We were inspired by a presidential mandate to form local partnerships to address food safety issues," says Villegas.
Targeting High-Risk People
"We work especially hard to reach people considered to be at high risk of contracting a foodborne illness," says Villegas. "These include the elderly, children, and people who have their immune systems compromised by diseases such as AIDS and cancer."
The Puerto Rico partnership also strives to improve food safety through
- controlling, reducing, or eliminating contamination risks.
- strengthening coordination with inspecting agencies and food industry personnel who serve high-risk clientele.
"We use special-emphasis campaigns, Spanish-language publications, and island-wide media blitzes," says Villegas. Over the years, the group has put out a "Fight BAC!" poster, a coloring book, a comic book, and a food service quiz. It has also arranged for appearances by bad-guy "BAC" (a character depicted by a person in costume) in television programs aimed at kids.
Among other activities, the group has also
- prepared a "Protect Your Baby" curriculum aimed at pregnant women and women with infants.
- developed materials in Spanish on listeria, egg safety, safe food-buying practices, and maintaining food safety during emergencies such as hurricanes.
- trained community based organizations, food-service workers, family counselors, and personnel from USDA's Women, Children and Infants (WIC) initiative and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Head Start program.
Villegas says that $45,000 in funding over 10 years from CFSAN has been a vital element of her program's success.
According to Seltzer, CFSAN contributed an average of $6,500 a year as "seed money" for a series of island-wide, grassroots food-safety education projects, between 1999 and 2005.
September is National Food Safety Education Month.
This article appears on FDA's Consumer Update page, which features the latest on all FDA-regulated products.
Date Posted: September 17, 2007