The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is harnessing the scientific expertise of the University of California, Davis to sequence the genomes of 100,000 types and subtypes of deadly foodborne bacteria to help it corral contamination outbreaks, such as the multistate Listeria contamination last year that killed 25 and sickened over a hundred.
The announcement is good news to the public, food advocates, as well as conscientious restaurant owners who employ workers with food handler certification or food safety certification training, who all have relied on traditional, low-tech measures to help prevent and contain foodborne-illness outbreaks.
Also being pressed into service are the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Agilent Technologies Inc., a chemical analysis/engineering company based in Santa Clara, Calif. Once the genetic sequencing is completed, the results will be posted in a public database maintained by the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Biotechnology Information.
“Right now, we spend a lot of time after an outbreak trying to figure out what country is it from, and how is it spreading,” said Dr. Steven Musser, director of the FDA’s office of regulatory science for food safety. He noted that the initiative is similar to the DNA information maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for investigating crimes.
“If we had this genetic sequence already, we could know immediately that the salmonella probably came from India, and we could have responded much more quickly,” Dr. Musser pointed out, referring to this year’s salmonella outbreak in tuna, which came from a plant in India. Lacking a genetic database for pathogens, FDA instead took almost two months to confirm that sushi was the culprit.
According to the FDA, the new database has the potential to slash the typical public-health response time in foodborne illness outbreaks to days instead of weeks.
But while food safety is moving fast on the tracking front, there is little movement on the prevention front.
Last year President Obama signed into law a bill to overhaul food safety in the United States, a sweeping food-policy change not seen in 70 years. But not much has happened since then-to the great frustration of the public and food advocates.
The Food Safety Modernization Act updates the basic way the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) carries out its role: from an agency that responds to incidents of contaminated or adulterated food to one that stops contamination or adulteration from manifesting in the first place. The act empowers the agency to compel food recalls and to employ additional food-safety inspectors. Despite bipartisan endorsement in Congress and near universal support from the public health groups and the food industry, implementation of the new law has gotten stuck in procedural muck.
Regulations implementing the law have not been approved, the upshot of lack of major action by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which is still evaluating the rules’ effectiveness and alignment with administration policies. The regulations have been with OMB for seven months, four months past its deadline.
OMB spokeswoman Moira Mack explained that public-safety rules require extensive review, which, she said, is exactly what OMB is doing. “The administration is working as expeditiously as possible to implement this legislation we fought so hard for. When it comes to rules with this degree of importance and complexity, it is critical that we get it right.”