Building the Science Foundation of a Modern Food Safety System

May 10, 2010

During the past 20 years, those working to prevent foodborne illnesses in the United States–whether in government, industry, academia, or the consumer advocacy community–have made major progress in understanding food safety as a farm-to-fork challenge that necessitates science-based efforts throughout the system. Numerous reports have called for a more risk-informed and data-driven approach to U.S. food safety, and legislation currently being considered in Congress includes provisions to strengthen the scientific basis of the nation’s food safety system.

A science- and risk-driven approach is built upon a foundation of data. Those working in food safety often face the dual problems of both too much and too little information; they must cope with an explosion of information from individuals and organizations, but the specific information they require may not be available or accessible—if it has been collected at all. While positive efforts in the United States are attempting to address these challenges, serious obstacles remain. Ultimately, improving the risk basis of the U.S. food safety system will require a more coordinated and integrated approach to collecting, managing, analyzing, and communicating food safety information.

These challenges are not unique to the United States, and the efforts of other countries to institute programs, policies, and practices to support a risk-informed system can inform similar efforts in this country. In particular, the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or “mad cow disease,” epidemic and large Salmonella outbreaks in the 1990s led to major changes in the food safety systems of Europe. The reforms of the past decade also have had significant implications for the role of risk analysis in food safety decision-making and, subsequently, have affected the way that data are collected and analyzed to support policy.

This report focuses on food safety activities in three countries: Denmark, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. The food safety efforts of these case-study countries are highly respected, and all three countries have undertaken significant reform to improve the science and analytical basis of their food safety decisions. This report also draws lessons from efforts at the European Union (EU) level.

The purpose of this report is not to directly compare the food safety systems of the United States and these three European countries nor to suggest that the United States should seek to employ a European approach to food safety. Rather, the goal is to learn from a decade of significant food safety reforms in Europe, with a focus on examples of programs, policies, and activities that could improve food safety in the United States.

This report is authored by Michael Batz is head of Food Safety Programs, Emerging Pathogens Institute at University of Florida, and J. Glenn Morris, Jr., is director, Emerging Pathogens Institute at University of Florida.

Read the full report Building the Science Foundation of a Modern Food Safety System on the Produce Safety Project's Web site.

Pew is no longer active in this line of work, but for more information visit the Produce Safety Project's Web site, or visit the Produce Safety Project on PewHealth.org.

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