The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Q&A with Dr. David Acheson

Q&A with Dr. David Acheson

Food Safety Update

June 28, 2007

Q&A with Dr. David Acheson

Dr. David Acheson is the new Assistant Commissioner for Food Protection at the FDA. A former Professor at both Tufts University and the University of Maryland Medical School, and the former Chief Medical Officer for CFSAN (Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition), Acheson brings a strong background in both public health and infectious diseases to the position. We talked to him about some of the critical food safety and security issues now facing the agency. 

What are your priorities as the Assistant Commissioner for Food Protection?

Currently within the FDA, there are different Centers and Offices that deal with safety, defense and protection. I am developing an overall, trans-agency strategic plan for all related Centers and Offices. My priorities under this plan are threefold. First, we want to make prevention measures more proactive. The agency is already skilled at responding to problems when they arise, but we want to stop problems from happening in the first place.

The second step is improving intervention procedures, which involves quickly identifying a problem sometime after it’s happened, but before anyone becomes affected. When a recent shipment of Mexican cantaloupes came through infected with Salmonella, we were able to catch the problem before it entered the marketplace.Intervention procedures are risk based and lead to targeted inspections, and this particular shipment fell under that category.

The third and final step is enhancing our response tactics. If we have a large scale food or feed crisis, our responses must be synchronized across all agency departments so that we move beyond basic crisis management and work toward a single goal. Public messaging has to be consistent and coordinated with the medical and field offices. 

You mentioned that intervention procedures are risk based. What areas provide the most risk?

There are different ways of defining risk. The classic method is to look at what foods have made people sick in the past, what microbes are coming up in testing and what information is coming through to the CDC. Imported foods can also provide increased risk, especially when coming from countries that may have different food safety controls. Food defense issues provide additional risks to consider, as does consumer demand for increased imports and rapid distribution. 

What do you view as the biggest issues in food safety today?

There are several. Better understanding how to prevent problems in the first place is crucial and requires basic science and infrastructure. We need state of art data handling systems. We need to identify risk and focus on the greatest areas of risk. We need to ensure accuracy. And finally, we need to concentrate on maximizing the safety and security of imported food. Our global food supply is growing. Currently, we import from thousands of foreign manufacturers. We must make certain that the American consumer is safe.

In light of the recent food safety issues, including bagged spinach, peanut butter and pet foods where are the problem areas that need to be improved? From FDA? From Manufacturers? 

The FDA, for their part, can work with the food industry to better identify those areas of need, and help them get the information out. Manufactures can beef up safety by learning where risks exist in their systems, and where science is lacking. It is also extremely important to know everything you can about your supplier – a key factor in food defense. 

Also, the more you know about the trail of where the food has come from, the more easily the FDA can track down problems when they arise and stop contaminated items from reaching a larger population. We have to work together. In fact, for example, the Bioterrorism Act requires manufacturers to keep detailed records. Retailers, however, are not subject to that.

What can Retailers do?

A retailer should know all they can about the grower and the grower’s practices, and ensure that the products they are receiving are properly handled and processed. This is particularly true for fresh produce, like bagged lettuce. 

As we continue to bring in more foods from other countries, how will the FDA meet the challenge of better regulating imports?

The original model in the U.S. focused on identifying higher risk products at the point of entry, as in the case of melamine. We will continue doing that but in an augmented, better risk-based manner. 

The challenge is pushing back into prevention, and developing a system where food is produced more safely to begin with. Historically, we know that some foods from certain countries are less (or more) safe than others. We need to work with countries with a less solid food safety infrastructure to improve their standards for foods that are imported into the United States.

The potential merger of the dozen or so food safety agencies has been in the pipeline for years. What are the pros and cons of this type of merger?

If a single food safety agency is formed, it must be done properly, with the right level of strategic thinking and planning, the proper resources and the proper authority. The system as we currently have it has evolved over time, through the careful development of relationships and communication channels, and it works very well. But anything that results in improvement for food public health protection is, of course, a good thing.

How important is the food Retailer’s role in keeping our food supply safe?

You can lock the gate at the manufacturer, but at the retail level, you can’t do that. You are the point of maximum access. Retailers can maintain vigilance, have a well-trained staff and be on the lookout for suspicious activity. And always opt for food safety. If an employee handing prepared foods is sick, send them home. 

What can Retailers do to help promote food safety and security?

Communicate safety messages in a delicate way, so as not to scare customers. Get a communication expert involved if needed. Educate consumers about food safety by telling them what to do with the food after they purchase it.

What will be the toughest food safety issues in the next 5 years? 10 years? 

Consumer demand for imports is growing, and as global economies shift, there will be more opportunities for underdeveloped countries to get into the food business. That means there could be more food supply coming from countries without solid food safety infrastructure simply because it’s cheaper.

We are also becoming progressively immune compromised because our demographics are older, there are more people with conditions like diabetes, and there are more people on immunosuppressive drugs. This will increase our susceptibility to food illness.

Any final thoughts? 

Arm consumers with basic food safety guidelines – cook food properly, wash your hands, don’t cross contaminate. Sometimes, simple steps like that can go a long way.