Food Safety is Key Initiative as FDA Develops Lab Testing Standards

When President Barack Obama in 2011 signed the Food Safety Modernization Act, the most sweeping reform of American food safety laws in more than 70 years, the Food and Drug Administration’s job got a lot tougher.

As the FDA’s Palmer Orlandi explained at Pittcon [on March 9], they might need your help to get that job done. Orlandi, who spoke as part of the two-day Food Safety Tech Food Labs Conference at Pittcon, is the agency’s  acting chief science officer in the office of food and veterinary medicine. The FDA traditionally has been very good at reacting to safety issues in our food supply as they arise and finding the source of the problem, Orlandi said. But, now the agency is charged with more of a preventive role, which means identifying the biggest risks before they become a threat to the public. That’s a big job, and the FDA can’t do it alone. “We’re looking for burden-sharing,” Orlandi said.

Partnerships with other federal agencies such as the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Homeland Security are part of the solution. They’re also working with state-level laboratories and even the private sector, he said. As an example, he cites the Food Emergency Response Network, which includes food-testing laboratories at the local, state, and federal levels. Initially formed to deal with bioterrorism threats, Orlandi said it has become a useful food safety network as well. FERN-affiliated labs recently tested 1,600 samples of avocados for salmonella and listeria, he said.

Much of the burden of this new preventive approach will fall on food producers. Orlandi said FDA is willing to work with private labs to develop standards. This can be tricky, however, because the agency doesn’t want to create the impression that it is somehow favoring one private sector entity over another. Meanwhile, private companies have their own trade secrets to protect. “Where is the middle ground where we can cooperate?” Orlandi asked rhetorically.

FDA has developed validation standards that field labs can use, he said. But, he concedes, the agency hasn’t done a good job compiling and publishing those standards into an accessible document or reaching out to stakeholders to make sure they’re up to speed. “That’s another thing on our to-do list,” he said.

Funding for these efforts is scarce. Joe Konschnik, a market research manager for Restek Chromatography Products who attended Orlandi’s presentation, helps to supply scientists working in College Park, MD to develop new procedures to analyze pesticides. Traditionally, once the research is published, the researchers’ jobs are over. Konschnik says now they’re trying to send the information out to other labs in the U.S. and overseas. That way, everyone can work from the same page to validate the work and create consistent standards.

One of the problems is that, for example, aerating seeds to run multilevel validation studies can cost $35,000, he said. But the FDA only has about $75,000 to fund such studies, which obviously would run out very quickly. “There’s no money to fund the back-end stuff,” Konschnik said. He said he works with the American Council of Independent Laboratories, which is willing to do the testing for free. But it still costs money for the FDA to make samples, send them to the labs, gather the data, and validate the data.

In short, the partnerships FDA is building remain a work in progress. But it has a new tool: the America Competes Act, which gives federal agencies the authority to award prizes for solving significant problems. The FDA has issued a “food safety challenge,” Orlandi said, looking for ways to reduce turnaround times on food safety tests, checking for salmonella, for example, from a few weeks to a day or two. The agency has a $500,000 prize pool, with $400,000 potentially going to the winner.

This article originally appeared in CEN media group’s Pittcon Today on Tuesday, March 10 and has been republished with permission. 

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