The economic downturn in recent years adversely affected the readiness of local and state food safety agencies to respond to foodborne illness outbreaks. A report that the National Environmental Health Association (NEHA) distributed in May found that budget cuts and financial constraints led to stagnating salaries, staff reductions, inadequate or underfunded training, and a decreased ability to respond to outbreaks.
At the request of the Council to Improve Foodborne Outbreak Response, the NEHA held focus groups and sent questionnaires to 900 employees of local and state food agencies to assess their ability to investigate outbreaks; the response rate to the questionnaire was about 5 percent. The NEHA report, “Assessment of Foodborne Illness Outbreak Response and Investigation Capacity in US Environmental Health Food Safety Regulatory Programs,” documents the responses.
Larry Marcum, NEHA managing director, government affairs and research and development, says that the economic recession occurred at the same time that the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was being implemented. “The implementation of this act, although a positive development, nonetheless put additional requirements in place…that placed additional resource and capacity demands on state and local programs at a time when they were least able to absorb these additional responsibilities.”
All of these events impacted the local response capacity “in an unprecedented way and to a degree that we have still not recovered all of the program capacity that existed prior to the recession,” Marcum says.
The report documents that local agencies do not have enough staff time to investigate outbreaks; 39 percent of smaller local agencies and 24 percent of the larger local agencies that responded said that they lack the capacity to effectively undertake outbreak control measures. Forty-two percent of the 20 state agencies that replied and represent more than 1 million people said they lack the capacity to sample foods; 60 percent cannot collect and process environmental swabs.
The FDA and other federal agencies, such as the CDC and USDA, are now building an integrated national food safety system as part of the implementation of FSMA. The advent of risk-based inspection protocols means that “many of these local capacity gaps are being addressed,” says Marcum.
Building a response network that includes national, state and local agencies, industry partners, and the general public is critical because all have “a vested interest in seeing an improved and more comprehensive outbreak prevention and response capacity,” he adds.
In fact, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding that will help provide a more comprehensive and multidisciplinary approach to address foodborne health hazards associated with meat, poultry, and processed egg products.