Former federal senior food safety official David Acheson, now a private expert with The Acheson Group, recently forecast an eventful 2014 for food safety advocates.
Acheson used to work at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) food safety service, as well as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Both agencies have joint oversight of U.S. food safety.
1. Draft Regulations Will Advance Significantly – The 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act
The 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) food safety reforms are still being enacted, as the FDA finalizes specific rules and guidance for the industry. The FDA could work through another round of public commentary in 2014, tweaking in anticipation of finalized rules by 2015, wrote Acheson.
The act was signed into law by President Barack Obama in January 2011 but has since moved slowly as the food industry dissects details. It is the most significant food safety overhaul in decades.
“In the next version, we also expect to see supplier controls and environmental monitoring, and possibly finished product testing for high-risk foods,” wrote Acheson. Food defense, or protecting food from intentional interference via sabotage or terrorism, is also expected to be a hotly debated topic.
A proposed rule about clean and sanitary food transport could come as soon as early 2014. “It is likely that it will put trucking companies in a tailspin. They currently do the minimum, and this could really shake them up and have them looking for solutions around reducing food safety risk,” said Acheson.
Questions of adequate funding for implementation will also remain. Training food inspectors and inspecting imports are expected to cost significantly, with total reform requiring $583 million over five years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Lawsuits could happen if the FDA oversteps court-ordered deadlines.
2. Chicken Takes Center Stage
Critical reports from December 2013, from the Pew Charitable Trusts and Consumer Reports, could force the government’s hand in the regulation of chicken.
The reports centered on salmonella controls and excessive bacteria found in raw chicken.
“The [Consumer Reports] report has led to a letter from the magazine’s advocacy group to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, as well as a statement from the National Chicken Council stating that eliminating naturally occurring bacteria entirely is not feasible and that all bacteria can be killed with proper cooking,” wrote Acheson.
”We don’t expect any such association, consumer or media advocacy to end anytime soon.”
3. Recalls, Genetically Modified Foods (GMO), and Nanotechnology
Acheson predicts that food safety recalls, alongside controversy over GMO labeling and nanotechnology, could embed more deeply in mainstream awareness in 2014.
As the food industry prepares for stricter preventative controls thanks to the FSMA, facilities could self-scrutinize more closely and boost the frequency of recalls. Equally, better-implemented controls could reduce recalls, says Acheson.
“In either case, we are overdue for a horrible outbreak that will have FDA off-guard and both Congress and consumers screaming that nothing has changed,” he said. One of the deadliest food safety outbreaks in decades happened in 2011, where 37 people died as a result of the Jensen Farms cantaloupe listeria outbreak.
More calls for GMO labeling and a standardized global approach to the topic are expected by Acheson. GMO labeling cropped up in the agendas of many state politicians, and passed state legislatures in Connecticut and Maine. Washington state rejected a law mandating GMO labeling by 54 percent to 45 percent, after grocers and many food companies lobbied against it, raising $22 million.
“It seems to be a small subset of consumers who really care, so the real question for 2014 is whether this [GMO labeling] will become a mainstream issue, and how much education will be needed for consumers to understand the full extent of GMOs, including its beneficial uses,” wrote Acheson.
“Very similar perspectives and questions are applicable for nano[technology],” he said. Questions about nanotechnology regulation, and whether it can be accepted as generally safe in food additives or food packaging, could see partial answers in 2014.
(Note: Chicken photo by Shutterstock.com.)