A Conversation with Food Safety Czar David W.K. Acheson

A exclusive conversation with ‘food safety czar’ David W.K. Acheson, FDA’s Associate Commissioner for Foods.

By Diane Toops, News & Trends Editor

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Diane Toops, our News & Trends Editor, recently sat down with David W.K. Acheson, FDA’s Associate Commissioner for Foods.

FP: In May 2007, you were appointed you to the new position of Assistant Commissioner for Food Protection. Then in January this year you became Associate Commissioner for Foods, to provide guidance on food safety and defense strategies. What was your immediate focus?

DA: The first focus was to develop an integrated Food Protection Plan for FDA that needed to embrace both food safety -- the unintentional part of food contamination -- and food defense – the intentional piece -- linked together under food protection. Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach [Acheson’s boss] set up the new part of this position to raise the profile of food issues into the commissioner’s office, which it hadn’t been before, and integrate the various parts of the agency that deal with food for humans and for animals. We’re dealing with the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition on the human side, Center for Veterinary Medicine on the animal side, the Office of Regulatory Affairs, which deals with inspections, National Center for Toxicological Research, the research arm of FDA in Arkansas and various other components, like Office for International Programs and Office of Crisis Management. It was a central role to integrate, organize and develop a strategic vision of where we should take the agency in the future to protect the food supply. That resulted in the Food Protection Plan.

(For a downloadable copy of the Food Protection Plan go to http://www.fda.gov/oc/initiatives/advance/food/plan.html)

FP: What are the core elements of the Food Protection Plan?

DA: A high-level strategic vision of the approaches to protect the food supply, it is built on three core elements: prevention, intervention and response. Prevention is all about building safety up front. Intervention is about risk-based targeting of inspections sampling and getting a handle on problems early on. When something starts to go wrong, how do we get in there quicker in tracking adverse events, consumer complaints and the results from samples? The third element is response. When you have a situation and need to respond, how can you do it more efficiently, faster and improve the communications up and down the channel, sideways to consumers, to industry and regulators as part of the response?

One of the big shifts for FDA was to put more emphasis on prevention. We’ve always worked on trying to build preventative strategies because that’s clearly the smart way to go, but this plan is a deliberate shift to put more focus on prevention – both domestic and imports. Much of the plan is focused on how we deal with the global food supply. 

The reason we developed the plan was to respond to many global changes and challenges – rapid distribution, changes in distribution practices. The global food supply is a huge part of that with the increasing number of imports and increasing susceptibility of the population. There are multiple things going on that needed a new approach.   

FP: Consumer confidence has been shaken by a number of high-profile food safety scares, 57 percent of Americans think imported foods are unsafe, and many fear a terrorist attack on the food supply. How can the food industry and the FDA reassure consumers?

DA: I think the short answer is to communicate to consumers the extent to which preventative controls have been put in place. It isn’t a matter of saying, “Trust us, we’ve got it taken care of.” Consumers don’t respond well to that; I don’t respond well to that. We have to demonstrate through a clear articulation of what’s been done, so when we say that we have a program in place to make sure seafood from China is safe, we have to tell them exactly what we are doing and explain the process. The key is not only to determine what preventative strategies are going to work, but to articulate and communicate them to consumers.

Now, we’ll never get to the point where foodborne illness is zero; it’s beyond the bounds of possibility and research. So, part of this is controlling expectations for consumers. Think about it with regard to fresh produce: You grow something in the dirt, don’t cook it, you know that washing removes a significant portion of bacteria, but not all. There’s an inherent risk associated with consuming foods grown in the ground. The goal is to minimize that risk, but I’m certainly never going to tell you or anybody else that we’ve taken it to zero. That is one way to restore consumer confidence. Another piece to this is when things go wrong – and they will -- we do a better job of communicating to consumers what is going on, what we know and don’t know, what the process is and to get on top of it as fast as possible. Those are all goals in the Food Protection Plan.

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