We were asked if we think FSMA is driving strong food safety cultures. Our answer is: Yes, but there’s more to the story.
For the dozens of impacted families that advocated for years on behalf of the thousands of individuals who are sickened and die each year from foodborne illness, FSMA marked a sea change in accountability for preventing foodborne illness. And it demonstrated that the consumer voice can impact a Washington legislative process often perceived as impenetrable to the everyday citizen. It’s also true, however, that even before FSMA, leading companies had been implementing modern preventive measures in response to unacceptable illness outbreaks and consumer demands. And food safety thought leaders were writing about food safety culture and working to drive it. We thus see FSMA reinforcing the movement to strengthen food safety cultures rather than being the primary driver.
After all, a genuine food safety culture is as much about people and motivation as regulation. The people in food companies driving strong cultures are motivated at a personal level by knowing the severe harm deadly pathogens in food can inflict on illness victims and their families. And they are motivated at a business level by the realization that the success of a food company hinges on continuously meeting high consumer expectations for food safety. These personal and business motivations are the original and continuing drivers of strong food safety cultures.
The 2011 enactment of FSMA was made possible by the coming together of consumers, food safety experts, and industry leaders who agreed that application of the best available science to prevent problems is the responsibility of everyone. This agreement and the enactment of FSMA powerfully demonstrated how far our food safety culture had come since the uphill battles of 25 years ago over accountability for keeping E. coli O157H:7 out of ground beef and mandating HACCP for meat, poultry and seafood. There is now consensus that adoption of modern preventive controls is a basic responsibility of everyone producing food.
Food safety culture is about much more, however, than simply doing the basics of preventive controls. It’s about staying on top of change in the hazards that occur in our food system and in the means available to minimize them, and being committed to continuous improvement in response to these changes. FSMA took the breakthrough step of making continuous improvement a regulatory requirement by tying the definition of preventive controls to current expert knowledge about how to control hazards and requiring controls to be updated regularly as new knowledge emerges. In this way, FSMA reinforces the movement to strengthen food safety culture and makes it everyone’s responsibility.
But it all still comes back to motivation. Stop Foodborne Illness has long contributed to that motivation by sharing the stories of individuals and families who have experienced devastating loss and lasting harm from foodborne illness. Companies seeking to strengthen their cultures invite Stop constituents to tell their stories in employee training sessions and meetings with senior executives. In this new era of food safety, we see great opportunity to expand collaboration with food companies to help drive the widest possible implementation of best practices, continuous improvement and strong food safety cultures. In this effort, FSMA is our important ally.
Bush and Taylor co-chair the Board of Directors of Stop Foodborne Illness, a non-profit consumer organization that represents victim of foodborne illness and their families.