May 26, 2009

The Changing Food Landscape and the FDA

Center for a Livable Future

Center for a Livable Future

Baltimore’s former health commissioner, Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, is making news as the new deputy director of the FDA, serving under the new commissioner, Dr. Margaret Hamburg. Hamburg and Sharfstein have pledged to reform the food safety system and encourage scientific exchange and better communication to the public.

In the New England Journal of Medicine, Hamburg and Sharfstein acknowledged the difficulty of decision-making at the FDA, often in the absence of complete information, and admitted that recent high profile contaminations (peanut butter, anyone?) have rightfully caused the public to question the agency.

This is certainly a daunting task, but Hamburg and Sharfstein seem ready for the challenge (see some background on them here).

Indeed, there are many aspects of the food system that advocates for public health, the environment, animal welfare and social justice have identified as areas in dire need of improvement. The FDA will have the authority to address some of these issues, but not all. Some recent articles have discussed complicating factors that may impact the safety of the nation’s food supply.

One such factor is that our changing environment might be conducive to more diseases. According to the World Animal Health Organization (as reported by Grist here), climate change is expected to lead to increased disease among farm animals. This could certainly require additional vigilance and effort by the feds.

Another factor policymakers should take into account is the current food distribution system, and how decentralization of the system might affect national food safety. With more people interested in buying local food from small farms, there are potential benefits to a shift away from the industrial system, which (as recent headlines have proven) can lead to major problems, but is also known for its efficiency and ability to provide inexpensive food.

As Wired Science put it:

The current distribution of edibles works the way it does, though, because it’s brutally effective at reliably delivering low-cost food all over the country. Sysco, the dominant $13 billion American food distributor, works and restaurants know that.

“The big problem in small agriculture is supply chain resiliency,” Croll said. “Chefs order from Sysco because they know, no matter what, they’ll get their orders or there is an account rep they can strangle.”

Now, restaurants have two basic options. Call up a dozen local farms to order the ingredients for their salads or use Sysco’s online system and have everything show up, come hell or high water. Perhaps unsurprisingly, only the pickiest chefs at the fancier restaurants choose the local farm route.

Small agriculture is becoming “bigger,” in popularity, and as the Wired Science article points out, it is now being aided by online networking that makes it easier to connect farmers with restaurants and consumers. It remains to be seen what effect these type of trends will have on food safety, but hopefully the new leadership at FDA will evaluate the changing landscape and the multiple challenges facing them with foresight. Beyond that, the ability to explain risks and communicate benefits to the public will be imperative. What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the leaders of FDA?

-Patti Truant

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