Consumer food safety education must be reinforced to ‘reap the rewards’ of FSMA, FDA official says

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As the deadlines for regulations painstakingly developed under the Food Safety Modernization Act begin to go into effect, compliance by producers, suppliers and manufacturers alone will not be enough to stop food borne illness outbreaks, a top FDA official warns. 

“We are in a very critical period for the Food Safety Modernization Act implementation,” Stephen Ostroff, the acting commissioner of food and drugs at FDA, told attendees Jan. 27 at the 2017 Consumer Food Safety Education Conference. “FSMA at its core is all about change. It is the most sweeping change of FDA’s Food Safety oversight in 70 years and it ranges from produce on the farm to food on the fork. It is all about transforming the food safety system from one that is reactive to food safety problems to one that prevents them from occurring in the first place.”

To that end, regulators have worked closely with stakeholders in the past five years to develop the foundational rules of FSMA, the first of which went into effect last September for manufactured food and animal feed and the next of which goes into effect shortly thereafter in April.

But the hard work to create a food safety culture throughout the production chain could fall flat if it does not extend to consumers – a group that has been overlooked to some extent, Ostroff suggested.

“You can do a great job with the production of food but if it is not handled, prepared and stored by the consumer safely, you won’t reap the rewards and all the work is gone,” he cautioned.

Improved consumer education needed

And, he added, the government has data to show consumer education efforts must be improved to ensure food safety.

The results of a food safety survey conducted by FDA and USDA released last November revealed only half of the consumers surveyed thought it was not common to get food poisoning from food prepared at home, and only 6% thought that it was very likely that raw vegetables could have germs present, Ostroff said.

On the bright side, he also noted 85% of consumers now say they wash their hands with soap and water after preparing raw meat, poultry and fish and 90% wash their cutting boards after preparing these ingredients before using it for other items.

“Each of these statistics show we have our work cut out for us, but the survey results also are a roadmap for where we need to focus our education efforts,” Ostroff said.

To help food safety educators close the gap and ensure food safety continues to extend through consumers, FDA teamed with Partnership for Food Safety Education to publish a new online toolbox and guide for food safety educators.

The guide can be downloaded online and includes tips and tools to help food safety educators develop and evaluate their programs. 

With this toolkit, education can help consumers close the loop on creating a “resilient food safety culture,” Ostroff said.

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