At the recent Food Safety Summit in Baltimore, the focus was on building an Integrated Food Safety System (IFSS) to aid in implementing FSMA and continued progress along the path of prevention vs. reaction, while at the International Forum on Food Safety (IFoFS) in Beijing, speakers emphasized colla boration for more effective and accurate communication of food safety risks.
In China, the media often over reports on food safety scandals that are actually food quality issues. Consumers are led to believe that food safety is a widespread problem across China and thus have developed a dis trust in the local food industry. At the heart of the matter is multi-stakeholder risk communication. The media is not solely to blame for this problem. Industry and regulators must be more proactive in communicating the true nature of food-related incidents in a way that is more accessible to consumers and the media.
The entrenched culture and government supremacy of China also contributes to the problem. The food industry typically does not communicate openly about food safety risks once the government has spoken out. However, at IFoFS, openness was a key focus, and I think we are at pivotal turning point. Chinese and other Asian companies, along with the Chinese FDA, have begun discussing the criticality and need for risk communication as it relates to food safety and food quality as a means to protect both consumers and food brands. One significant challenge involves instances in which errors in judgment are not quickly admitted when a regulator positions an incident as one of food safety when soon after it’s realized it is a quality issue. It’s safe to assume that regulators may not take the initiative to openly admit the misclassification, and speaking out against these issues may be perceived as openly challenging the government.
I also see the same phenomenon happening in the United States, but the over-reporting, is more so connected to the lawsuits against FDA and topical focus by consumer activist groups. For example, certain activist groups are over-amplifying the purported risks of GMOs, and we’re seeing over-reporting of the pressure and lawsuits against FDA related to FSMA deadlines. Similar to China, these issues are not food “safety” issues per se, but the media’s coverage exacerbates consumer misunderstanding and feeds a belief of widespread adverse food safety issues.
At the Food Safety Summit there was more focus on the integration and collaboration of federal, state, local, and regulatory bodies to implement FSMA. Michael Taylor, FDA’s Deputy Commissioner of Foods said that the publication of the final rules will meet the court-mandated deadlines, beginning in August. He added that there is an existing, established network between these groups, but FSMA elevates this association to a new level, because Congress has mandated it. The discussion of interaction and integration raised a question during a Town Hall on “integrating” the federal food agencies into a single agency. The general answer: If we were starting from scratch, we probably wouldn’t create separate agencies, but given that there are two today, there are more effective ways of integration versus completely disrupting the system to create a single-agency. (Sorry David—we know how much you would like a single food agency!)
The common thread? The U.S. and China are calling for increased relationship building and trust between all stakeholders. This common thread sews these two conferences, countries, and the global community together. But the question remains, with the media, consumers, regulators and industry seemingly still at odds with each other in both countries, how do we make this happen?