Federal food safety officials are seeking an increased budget for 2020 that would allow them to utilize modern technology in detecting sources of foodborne contamination, along with adding additional staff dedicated to preventing nationwide outbreaks.
On March 19, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb issued a statement describing the agency’s proposed budget increases for the agency’s food safety program for 2020 and beyond, citing the increased advances in science and technology needed to secure the nation’s public health mission from farm to fork.
As part of the proposal, Gottlieb and Deputy Commissioner Frank Yiannas are requesting budget increases to utilize modern technology to prevent food contamination from potentially fatal foodborne bacteria such as salmonella, listeria, E. coli and many others that cause hundreds of thousands of illnesses annually.
There are approximately 80,000 food manufacturing plants in the United States, with only about one-tenth inspected each year due to lack of available resources. As a result, the FDA focuses on high-risk manufacturers while the majority go without inspection each year.
Gottlieb wants to increase the budget for the agency so it may be able to utilize smarter, more technologically advanced equipment to be integrated into food pathogen inspections, prevention and outbreak tracking.
Over the last several years, some have raised questions over whether the U.S. food supply has become less safe, or if the increases seen in the number of outbreaks were instead due to the agencies becoming better at detecting outbreaks. Gottlieb said the FDA’s Coordinated Outbreak Response and Evaluation Network indicates the amount of potential human food safety outbreak incidents per year doubled in 2017 and 2018 when compared to the 2015 and 2016 fiscal years.
Gottlieb says the FDA is testing new technology which can screen for multiple allergens simultaneously, and is also looking into ways to improve product traceability by using modern approaches such as block-chain technology and whole genome sequencing (WGS), which is a form of DNA fingerprinting to relate strains of bacteria to the same source of contamination.
WGS has shown over the last year to be an essential toolkit in efficiently tracking and tracing potentially fatal outbreaks, including the romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak this past October, which caused the FDA to issue nationwide warning not to eat romaine lettuce products several days prior to the Thanksgiving holiday.
Through the use of WGS, the agency was ultimately able to discover the source of contamination stemmed from an agricultural water reservoir on Adams Bros Farming Inc., farm in Santa Maria, California, where romaine lettuce products were grown and distributed nationwide, preventing the spread of additional contaminated and difficult to track leafy green products.
Additional efforts mentioned in the release would focus on enhancing oversight and compliance with the Foreign Supplier Verification Program (FSVP) as well as assessing the agency’s Import Alert Program, which would help detect imported outbreak threats before reaching consumers.