Developing a 'prevention-based' system

by Jay Sjerven
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Michael R. Taylor is the first deputy commissioner for food at the Food and Drug Administration and heads the Office of Foods, which was created in August 2009 to coordinate and manage all of the F.D.A.’s food programs. Among Mr. Taylor’s principal charges are guiding the agency’s food program as it works with industry to inaugurate new prevention-based systems to address foodborne illness and improving how nutrition information is conveyed to consumers.

Mr. Taylor began his career in food safety with the F.D.A. in the 1970s and served in several high-level positions both at the F.D.A. and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. His service at the U.S.D.A. included a stint as F.S.I.S. administrator and acting under secretary for food safety.

Food Business News asked Mr. Taylor what has changed at F.D.A. in terms of structure or priorities under the Obama administration.

“I think the important news is that we’re building a system aimed at preventing foodborne illness,” Mr. Taylor said. “We’re building that system on a foundation of a lot of F.D.A. work conducted over the years, but also recognizing that by harnessing modern tools of preventive process control, we can do a better job of reducing foodborne illness.”

Much hinges on food safety legislation before Congress, Mr. Taylor acknowledged.

“Fundamentally, the legislation would give us a mandate to pursue this prevention strategy and would create a requirement that preventive controls be adopted in all food facilities in ways appropriate for each facility,” he said. “It would give us additional tools to set standards, but also additional tools to verify that those standards are being observed. The legislation basically codifies the modern approach to preventive controls that many in the food industry have been pursuing for a long time and that we all agree would contribute to reducing foodborne illness.”

Mr. Taylor said while he could not predict the Senate calendar, “We’re optimistic, quite confident, that when the bill comes to the floor, it will pass in the Senate, and then they’ll have to work out the differences with the House. The process is going forward, and we hope Congress acts soon.”

In the interim, an F.D.A. team is working on developing regulations with respect to preventive controls, both in anticipation of the legislation and to pursue preventive controls under current law to the extent possible, Mr. Taylor said.

The F.D.A. also has undertaken several initiatives to enhance food safety under its current authorities, Mr. Taylor pointed out.

“For example, last summer, we issued regulations for egg safety (shell eggs), where we set standards for preventive controls on the farm in laying houses so the risk of contamination of eggs by Salmonella enteritidis would be reduced,” he noted. “We’re also working hard on developing standards for produce safety. We’ve had a lot of requests, demands from industry and consumers, that we establish standards for safe growing practices on the farm to reduce the risk of harmful contamination.”

Mr. Taylor also pointed to recent work of the F.D.A. on nutrition labeling, in particular, front-of-package labeling.

“There’s been quite a lot of interest in the industry and in the administration in improving the quality and the utility for consumers of the nutrition information on the front of food packages,” he said. “Here the question is how can we work with industry in a voluntary way to get good, clear and useful information on the front of packages so consumers can make healthy choices right there in the supermarket aisle.

“The full Nutrition Facts Panel on the back of the package still is the foundation of nutrition information and is critical But in the supermarket aisle, is there a quicker way to make comparisons among products and across product categories on some of the key nutritional attributes? We’re working on that, and hopefully will make progress over the next year.”

Mr. Taylor said discussions with the industry about front-of-package labeling were ongoing.

“We’re having a lot of dialogue, at a technical level, trying to figure out the right approach to front-of-package labeling based on consumer research and the best nutrition science,” he said.

Asked if the F.D.A. was considering changes to the Nutrition Facts Panel itself, Mr. Taylor said, “Yes, that’s very much on our agenda as well. We’re looking at possibilities for updating some of the serving sizes as some behaviors have changed and our knowledge has changed. There are ways in which calories might be declared differently.

“When we designed the Nutrition Facts Panel back in the ‘90s, the focus was much more on fat. We know now there is a complex picture with fat. There’s some good fat, and there’s some not-so-good fat. Calories, though, remain a big focus because of concerns over obesity, so we may look at some ways to focus on calories more. So, yes, we’re definitely looking at ways to update and keep the Nutrition Facts Panel current with science and our understanding of nutrition.”

Under its current authority, the F.D.A. is better targeting for inspection imports that pose the highest risk, making the best use of its limited port-of-entry inspection resources, Mr. Taylor said. The F.D.A. also is increasing its inspections of overseas food production facilities.

“A year or two ago, we did, maybe, 200 of those inspections a year,” he said. “We’re shooting for 600 this year, and 1,000 next year, which is a small number in relation to the number of facilities, but it shows an overseas presence and lets some major foreign suppliers know that we are paying attention to what they do.”

Mr. Taylor said the F.D.A. and the food industry, perhaps more than ever before, appreciate “the common interest we all have in the safety of the food supply and in what we need to do … It’s that common interest that has built the coalition for enactment of food safety legislation, and we plan to build on that common interest.”

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