I’ll start this with a blunt and age-revealing truth: This is my first blog. This means I am more than happy to receive your “constructive advice” and suggestions for topics. This blog will appear monthly and focus on capacity building in food safety.
I would like to start by explaining what I do and through the months, introduce a number of initiatives and organizations involved in this field. The thing about food safety is that we all want it and there is a willingness to improve it; however, this objective can always benefit from more engagement and better knowledge of the tools that exist.
So back to me… I manage the International Food Safety Training Laboratory (IFSTL), a public-private partnership between the University of Maryland and the Waters Corporation. The Lab is the latest program at Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (JIFSAN), which itself is a public-academic partnership between the University and the U.S. FDA. Why so complicated, you might wonder, because it takes a village… Put simply, what we do is deliver courses on laboratory methods fit for the purpose of demonstrating the safety of food. Why the village? Because one important reason for testing is to meet regulatory requirements put in place to ensure the health of populations and enforced through trade channels. We are lucky enough to be able to involve the regulators in the US (i.e. FDA, USDA and EPA) to explain why the rules are there, why some methods fit the purpose and others don’t, but also we ask them to explain what the health and economic consequences of failures to deliver safe food are. Then we needed teachers for hands-on laboratory work, and we needed some resources to make it happen. As I said, it takes a village.
The IFSTL is a resource for technical assistance and training identified in the FDA’s International Food Safety Capacity-Building Plan published in February 2013. Goal 4 of the Plan specifically addresses technical assistance and objective 4.4 further defines the vision for multilateral acceptance of fit-for-purpose laboratory methods. Personal experience has taught us that some laboratory analysts embrace the flexibility brought about by requiring methods to be equivalent instead of a rigid imposition of pre-defined methods, but others would rather simply be told what to do. The flexibility allows each laboratory to apply the methods that best fit their situation in terms of access to trained staff, to instrumentation, to test kits and to financial resources, while still fitting the purpose of the measurement. There are usually quite a few recommended validated methods and good reasons to select any of them. So for that topic only, there are lots of questions requiring not only technical expertise on instrumentation, but also on the requirements of the regulatory system and, let’s face it, tricks of the trade.
The selection of courses we offer is guided by input from FDA foreign posts informing us of needs observed in their region. The need may arise from a new regulatory requirement, from a change in agricultural production and exports or simply because training is not available in the region. We also receive input from the industry, primarily but not exclusively from members of the JIFSAN Advisory Council. Finally, we also receive requests from other countries either through technical assistance activities or directly from analysists. Generally, we prepare courses that are open to the public (of laboratory analysts) from the US and foreign countries for registration, and these courses always benefit from a heavy involvement from the U.S. regulatory agencies. In some cases, we develop and deliver private courses for industry that include aspects of their own laboratory quality control systems. In a nutshell, that’s what we do at the IFSTL.
In the coming months, I will talk about a number of initiative in food safety capacity building and I hope that it will encourage us to continue to work together to achieve the goal of providing safe food to the world.