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News from the National Academies

Date: April 24, 2003
Contacts: Christine Stencel, Media Relations Officer
Chris Dobbins, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; e-mail <news@nas.edu>

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

U.S. Food Safety Standards Should Be More Clearly Linked
To Public Health Outcomes

WASHINGTON -- Federal and state food safety criteria, cobbled together over decades by various agencies in response to different problems and concerns, need to be clearly linked to specific public health goals and should be established using the latest scientific tools and methodologies, says a new report from the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council of the National Academies.

"A number of practical constraints within the food inspection system have hampered the development of harmonized food safety regulations," said Cameron Hackney, dean of agriculture, forestry, and consumer sciences, West Virginia University, Morgantown, and co-chair of the committee that wrote the report. "Such constraints make it especially important that the safety criteria that underlie these regulations are based on sound science, developed in a transparent manner, and consistently applied."

Current food safety criteria, including performance standards for food producers, are in place to protect the public's health. With new technology, the criteria can now be clearly related to specific public health objectives, the committee said. For example, testing samples of food products for the presence of microbes offers a useful "score card" for measuring producers' performance, but these tests do not necessarily reflect the true potential for disease. Testing for Salmonella bacteria on beef carcasses, for instance, can indicate whether proper control and other measures are being followed in a slaughterhouse, but people rarely contract salmonellosis from eating beef. By contrast, even a small amount of E. coli 0157:H7 in beef can result in severe illness, so efforts to detect and eliminate this bacterium should be performed on meat before it is ground -- not just after, as current standards require.

The committee commended the recent concerted efforts of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and state health departments to develop and integrate disease monitoring and surveillance activities through the national FoodNet network and other means. To provide a fuller picture of the prevalence of microorganisms associated with foodborne disease -- and to identify optimal points for controlling them -- periodic, systematic microbiological sampling should be carried out on foods commonly associated with foodborne illness at various points along the entire farm-to-table continuum. Congress should allocate funds to build and maintain centralized databases to store this information. To allow better tracking of foodborne illnesses to their sources and more accurate targeting of disease-prevention resources to the actual causes of contamination, Congress should require the development of a national plan to integrate the information on pathogens that USDA and FDA gather through food sampling with public health agencies' surveillance data on foodborne disease.

In addition, Congress should ensure that the agencies have the administrative flexibility to efficiently update the criteria as better technologies and methods for testing and improving safety become available. Currently, it can take months or years to update food safety regulations, which prevents them from keeping pace with rapid advances in the development of new safety technologies.

Labels describing safe-handling procedures are required on all packages of ground beef. However, labels warning consumers of the potential harm from not properly cooking the product should be required as well, the committee said. Similarly, labels should be required on cheeses made from unpasteurized, or "raw," milk to provide consumers with information they need to make informed choices. Given the risks associated with consuming unpasteurized milk, the committee also called for states to ban all sales of raw milk, which is currently permitted to be sold within states where it is produced, although federal law prohibits interstate sales.

The report also addressed safety criteria and concerns surrounding produce and seafood. Rather than rely on random screening of a small percentage of seafood imports, FDA should take steps to increase the understanding and application of its comprehensive guide for seafood safety in international commerce of fish and shellfish to ensure that safety hazards are properly detected and addressed prior to shipment. Likewise, all imported produce should be expected to follow the same or equivalent safety practices required for growing and harvesting domestic produce.

The report was sponsored by USDA and FDA. The Institute of Medicine and National Research Council are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter. The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering. A committee roster follows.

Copies of Scientific Criteria to Ensure Safe Food will be available later this year from the National Academies Press; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at http://www.nap.edu. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).

INSTITUTE OF MEDICINE

Food and Nutrition Board

And

NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL

Division on Earth and Life Studies
Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources

Committee on Review of the Use of Scientific Criteria and Performance Standards for Safe Food

Claude Earl Fox, M.D., M.P.H. (co-chair)
Professor of Public Health, Department of Population and Family Health Sciences
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and
Director,
Johns Hopkins Urban Health Institute
Baltimore

Cameron Hackney, Ph.D. (co-chair)
Dean
Davis College of Agriculture, Forestry, and Consumer Sciences
West Virginia University
Morgantown

Kathryn J. Boor, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Food Processing Microbiology
Department of Food Science
Cornell University
Ithaca, N.Y.

Elizabeth Boyle, Ph.D.
Professor, Department of Animal Sciences and Industry
Kansas State University
Manhattan

Marsha N. Cohen, J.D.
Professor of Law
Hastings College of the Law
University of California
San Francisco

James S. Dickson, Ph.D.
Professor
Department of Microbiology
Iowa State University
Ames

Darrell W. Donahue, Ph.D.
Associate Professor and Coordinator of Biological Engineering
Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering
University of Maine
Orono
Jeffrey M. Farber, Ph.D.
Director
Bureau of Microbial Hazards
Food Directorate
Health Products and Food Branch
Health Canada
Ottawa

Robert Gravani, Ph.D.
Professor
Department of Food Science
Cornell University
Ithaca, N.Y.

Richard L. Guerrant, M.D.
Thomas H. Hunter Professor of International Medicine, and
Director
Center for Global Health
University of Virginia School of Medicine
Charlottesville

Linda J. Harris, Ph.D.
Cooperative Extension Specialist
Department of Food Science and Technology
University of California
Davis

Craig Hedberg, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Division of Environmental and Occupational Health
School of Public Health
University of Minnesota
Minneapolis

Neal H. Hooker, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics
Ohio State University
Columbus

John A. Marcy, Ph.D.
Extension Food Scientist
Center for Excellence for Poultry Science
University of Arkansas
Fayetteville

W. Steven Otwell, Ph.D.
Professor and Florida Sea Grant Seafood Specialist
Aquatic Food Products Lab
University of Florida
Gainesville

Jim E. Riviere, D.V.M, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of Pharmacology, and
Director
Center for Chemical Toxicology Research and Pharmacokinetics,
College of Veterinary Medicine
North Carolina State University
Raleigh

Donald W. Schaffner, Ph.D.
Extension Specialist and Professor
Department of Food Science
Rutgers University
New Brunswick, N.J.

John G. Surak, Ph.D.
Professor of Food Science, and
Coordinator of International Programs
College of Agriculture, Forestry, and Life Sciences
Clemson University
Clemson, S.C.

Donn R. Ward, Ph.D.
Professor and Associate Head
Department of Food Science
North Carolina State University
Raleigh

Terri Wenger, Ph.D.
Chief of Grading, Labeling, and Evaluation Section
Division of Food Safety
Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection
Madison

STAFF

Richardo Molins
Study Director