• Decrease font size
  • Return font size to normal
  • Increase font size
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

News & Events

  • Print
  • Share
  • E-mail

Remarks at the Foods Program Science and Research Conference

Remarks by Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D.
2012 FDA Foods Program Science and Research Conference
August 1, 2012

Thank you Dr. White for your gracious introduction – and for giving me this opportunity to welcome so many of our top food scientists to this Second Annual Foods Program Science and Research Conference.  

I think this is going to be an exceedingly worthwhile two-day event that will help us push forward on our critical mission to ensure the safety and quality of our nation’s food supply – from wherever it is grown, to however it is processed and stored, to wherever it is served. 

Protecting the safety and quality of our food supply is a cross-cutting endeavor that, when we fit all the pieces together, we call the Foods Program.  That’s why I want to recognize the successful collaboration that has been built among the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, the Center for Veterinary Medicine, the Office of Regulatory Affairs, and the National Center for Toxicological Research.

Each brings to the table – and ultimately the American people’s kitchen table – its own research agenda, scientists and subject matter experts, specialized laboratories, policy analysts, and more.  But the sum is greater than the parts.  These centers and ORA work together to prevent, track, and uncover threats to the food we eat.  Together these programs develop new policies, programs and recommendations for industry and consumers.  This teamwork is both inspiring and what matters most.

While most of you are members of our FDA family, we also have guests from other federal agencies – including USDA, CDC, and DHS, as well as colleagues from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.  Thank you for joining us.

Lastly, I want to offer a special thank you to the Foods Program Science and Research Steering Committee for organizing this conference; for bringing together many of our nation’s top food safety and nutrition experts to share what they’ve learned from their cutting edge research; and for giving me this chance to acknowledge the contributions each of you are making to the health of the American people – and the mission of this agency.

That mission has grown dramatically over the years, and now includes a range of products – food, medical devices, drugs, vaccines, cosmetics, dietary supplements, things that emit radiation, and tobacco – that could barely have been imagined when President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Food and Drugs Act of 1906.

But if you look back to the origins of the FDA – addressing food safety and quality issues is more than a mandate.  It is foundational.  It is an intrinsic and essential part of our historic legacy.   And it has been the driving force behind more than 100 years of discovery, collaboration, and achievement.

Literally every American – and much of the world – depends on us to stay ahead of the ever-changing way food is produced, shipped, sold, and prepared. 

The meat-packing horrors brought to public consciousness by Upton Sinclair may largely be a thing of the past – at least in this country – but urbanization, industrialization, and globalization have brought new food safety challenges.  But they have also brought new opportunities.

In the realm of food safety, we’re all familiar with the statistics on food borne illnesses in the United States:  According to the CDC, about 48 million Americans – 1 in 6 – get sick each year; 128,000 are hospitalized; and 3000 die.  These numbers are tragic.  But they are also preventable.

We know that the best way to protect the American people from food borne illnesses is through well understood and effective prevention strategies.  That is why the Administration and Congress – with the support of industry and consumers – passed the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011.  This new law represents the most sweeping reform of our food laws in more than 70 years – with most of the focus on prevention.   Because of this landmark legislation, the FDA has the legal and regulatory authority we need to build a modern, efficient, food safety system for the 21st century.

FSMA changes the paradigm from crisis management – where we chase down problems after they occur – to developing systems and protocols for making sure that our food never becomes contaminated in the first place.  This is hugely important and will make an enduring difference.

At the same time, the Foods and Veterinary Medicine Program – led by Michael Taylor, our Deputy Commissioner for Foods – has put together a strategic plan that identifies critical goals and objectives to advance food safety, nutrition, and animal health well more broadly and well into the 21st century.

What do these changes in legislation, regulation, and strategic planning mean for our vision of a modern food safety and nutrition regulatory system that consumers can rely on and trust?

They mean being proactive instead of being reactive. 

They mean instead of being incremental and local in the way we protect the public – we will be comprehensive and global.

They mean examining the risks to health from food, food additives, and dietary supplements in a systematic and scientific way – as well as developing constructive strategies to address these risks.

They mean building strong partnerships with industry, consumer groups, and other nations – and making targeted but effective investments in compliance, training, inspections, and importantly, in science.

Of course science and innovation are what this very important conference is all about – and are at the heart of all that we do.  We can have all the food safety and labeling standards we want, but if they are not data-driven and science-based, those very troubling statistics I mentioned a moment ago – which represent real lives lost and injured through the simple act of eating – will continue, as will other preventable risks to health.

If we do not adequately ground our regulatory assessments and decisions on the best possible science, we will fail to adequately address potential threats to health, and will fail to deliver on the extraordinary promise that advances in science and technology can offer us today – and in the future – to improve all our lives.

That is why science and research are so critically important to FDA’s mission of to promote and protect the health of the American people.  I’m talking about research that is interdisciplinary.  Research that is cutting edge and that has real world applications.  Research that recognizes we now live in a globalized world.  And research that sees over the horizon – and can anticipate threats and sources of contamination or risk before problems arise.

You’ll see a lot of this kind of research in the more than 200 posters that will be on display at this conference, and from the many excellent presentations and discussions.  But let me give you a couple examples of the kind of great work FDA scientists are doing.

In the realm of foodborne illness, one of our goals must be to identify food pathogens quickly.  That is how we find the link between a sick individual and contaminated food – while eliminating other ancillary contaminants, food sources, or environmental causes. 

Anyone who has ever worked on a foodborne outbreak knows just how challenging this can be.   The context of an outbreak can be highly complex, and of course, foodborne bacteria can be at least as confounding.  Sometimes only a handful of genetic sequences will set one strain apart from another.

With microarray genotyping – sometimes referred to as a DNA chip – we can accurately survey and identify the entire gene content in a genome in one rapid assay – with enough detail that a strain of E. coli, for example, can be unequivocally traced back to its source.  This technique has already been used successfully to analyze and quickly assess the gene content and genomic architecture of a Shiga toxin producing E. coli 0104, the strain that emerged in Europe last year. 

CVM scientists are also using this technology to determine what antimicrobial resistance genotypes are present in foodborne pathogens, and have devised a chip that will be used by our National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring (NARMS) to monitor emerging resistance to critically important therapeutics.

But to take full advantage of this technology, CFSAN is generating databases of sequence information that can be used to quickly identify and trace the source of new food borne illnesses.  Just last month, FDA, in partnership with the University of California, Davis, Agilent Technologies, Inc. and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a collaboration to create a public database of 100,000 foodborne pathogen genomes to help speed identification of bacteria responsible for food borne outbreaks. 

This is cutting edge FDA science – the kind of science we need to build our shared vision of a 21st century food safety system.

I’ll give you another example.  Food allergies are an ongoing public health problem – affecting 2-percent of adults and up to 6-percent of infants and children in the United States.

Even when people avoid foods they know they’re allergic to, they can still become sick because of cross-contact in the raw materials or along the production line.  Those concerns can be life-threatening and certainly impair the quality of life and peace of mind of so many, children, adults and families every single day.

For the last several years, scientists at the Division of Food Processing Science and Technology have studied the best practices for cleaning manufacturing sites of allergens – and validating the effectiveness of those cleaning processes.  The division then collaborated with industry and academic scientists on a major paper describing strategies for preventing cross contact in food processing.  The paper was published in the Journal of Food Protection, and is now widely used by both the FDA and the food industry for training classes in allergen control. 

This was a huge advance – and one that put us several years ahead since the Food Safety and Modernization Act now mandates that the food industry comply with new requirements for managing allergens.  But more important, the research done by DFPST puts the public ahead of the game.  We’re able to provide science-based information on effective ways to control allergens – and that, in turn, can save lives, reduce hospital visits, and ease the fears of families.

These are just two of many examples of how the FDA – leveraging science and research to support our abiding commitment to protecting the health of the American people – is moving aggressively to build a modern, effective, and proactive food safety and nutrition regulatory system for the 21st century.

But our work is far from finished.  You all know this.  And that is why you are here.  We still have a lot of hard work, research, and partnership building ahead of us.  This conference is an important step forward. 

It is a chance to learn from each other, support each other, identify important emerging issues and strategies to address them – and, together, to establish a new foundation of knowledge from which to build the modern and proactive food safety and nutrition regulatory system that the American people want and deserve.

Thank you again for all of your important work – and have a great conference.