Monday, November 19, 2007

FDA Food Safety Teleconference For Bloggers

On Wednesday, November 14, 2007, the FDA engaged in a historic event: its first teleconference with bloggers. I felt honored to have been invited.

In attendance were FDA Commissioner, Andrew von Eschenbach (center in the photo), and FDA Assistant Commissioner for Food Protection, David Acheson (right in the photo). (HHS Deputy Secretary Tevi Troy is shown on the left.)

Dr. Eschenbach gave a nice overview of the FDA's new Food Protection Plan, nothing, however, that departed from their online document.

The plan was the FDA's contribution to a larger effort orchestrated by the Secretary of Health and Human Services (under which FDA falls), Mike Levitt. President Bush tasked Secretary Levitt with the job of reviewing our import practices.

In fact, HHS Secretary Levitt writes a blog - the only current administration official that I know who does.1 In one of his recent posts, Import Safety Report, he outlines his thinking on why the US is experiencing an uptick in recalls:
"What are the underlying economic and social changes causing this sudden concern? Import safety concerns represent the natural maturing process of a global market. They represent an early warning that we need to adapt our systems and thinking to accommodate a new set of challenges. The old ways do not protect us adequately from the new risks."
He accepts comments on his blog :)

Back to the FDA's Teleconference

As a blogger, I enjoyed Commissioner Eschenbach's answer to a presumably pre-asked question, "Why are you doing this?" He was "doing this", that is, holding a conference call with bloggers - their first - because he was struck by bloggers' deft handling of the melamine story back in March. Blogging, a stimulus for change!

The call was short, about 30 minutes. It was primarily listen-only. Dare I say, it felt like a formality. I think there were 4 questions at the end. From memory, those were:2

Q1. Donna Byrne, from Food Law Prof Blog, asked what new FDA authorities, besides the proposed recall authority, the plan was requesting. (A1. Those are called out in the report.)

Q2. Marion Nestle, from What To Eat blog, asked the how-will-this-be-funded question, something I had also queued to ask. (A2. Congress has to allocate funds. Dr. Eschenbach replied that a request has been made via an appropriations bill for 2008, if not then, then 2009, if not then ... etc.)

Q2. Marion also asked how this new plan compares to the current HACCP Program. HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) is an existing food safety program. This was a good point. Why reinvent, and pay for, another food safety program? (A2. This plan is different is that it will highlight areas of risk, and concentrate resources.) (Resources which I think everyone has agreed are currently inadequate.)

Q3. Bix, from Fanatic Cook blog, asked which foods the newly requested FDA recall authority did not cover. I assumed it did not cover ground beef, pork products, poultry, and eggs, since those are governed by the USDA, not the FDA, but this was not made clear in the presentation. (A3. It does not cover meat, poultry, and egg products. It does cover most other products including dairy, produce, and seafood.)

Curiously, the FDA appears to show an item of poultry in their presentation display (see photo above). And they discuss the FDA's testing for salmonella in shell eggs (a USDA, not FDA responsibility) in their report. I was airing the fact that different agencies were responsible for different foods, and this is leading to confusion ... confusion made all the more tangible by these apparent inconsistencies, or perhaps redundancies.

I don't know if the USDA today has recall authority. (Update: They don't.) But if they don't, our tax dollars may in the future be spent on a redundant report asking for that authority, and for additional funding.

Q4. Susan Schneider, from Agricultural Law Blog, raised a related point about the grey area between the FDA and the USDA. (A4. Dr. Acheson defended that the FDA and the USDA, for example, worked well together during the melamine crisis.)

The call was wrapped up hurriedly after those last two questions - which began to scratch the surface of the problem of having different agencies in charge of different, and sometimes the same (e.g. pepperoni pizza), food items.

I came away impressed by Dr. Acheson's grasp of facts. He knew, by count, every initiative called out in the document that would require legislative action. Where Dr. Eschenbach was palsy and story-telling, Dr. Acheson was detail-oriented. The pair seemed to work well together, in a Laurel-and-Hardy kind of way. (Acheson's British accent lent even more flavor to that analogy.) Not to say they might not be funny in person.

Your Comments

The subject of a one-stop, food safety website didn't come up, although it is called out for in their report. (Section 3.2: "Build a consumer Web site to communicate relevant food protection information.")

So that your comments did not go unheard, I summarized them in my reply email:

Comments and suggestions gleaned from my readers' comments, as regards the proposed consumer web site called out in Sec 3.2 (or for the current FDA-managed
  • Consider a blog format for the site. Daily updating is a plus!
  • Incorporate an RSS feed (or other feed) for consumers to keep track of updates.
  • Incorporate a search box where consumers can find specific information quickly, and that would not require browsing various agencies' sites.
  • Choose a site that prioritizes timely and complete content over links.
  • Allow for consumer feedback (comments, media uploads, e.g. audio/visual). This could assist the adverse event detection need called out in Sec 2.3
  • Include results of recent studies that address food contamination issues.
  • Manage links, i.e. clean up, or notify owners of dead links, e.g.
  • Introduce yourself! And describe the purpose of the site.
I hope there will be more tele- and web-conferences in the future. And I hope the list of invitees expands.3
1 Listen to Secretary Levitt talk about his blogging experience on NPR: Human Services Secretary Takes Blogging Seriously.
"I write them myself and I find it allows me to think out loud a little bit. ... It allows me to discover a new public policy domain which I think blogs have the potential to become."

2 Big thanks to Donna Byrne, from Food Law Prof Blog, for filling in the blanks on my questioner info.

3 And if you're reading this, Bill Marler, I think your presence was missed!

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