“In my mind I’m gone to Carolina,” croons James Taylor at virtually all of his concerts. While the iconic singer songwriter may not get to spend time in the state where he grew up as often as he would like, those that live in and visit North Carolina can routinely experience what might be called, under Taylor’s influence, the pleasant and comforting moonshine of good and safe eats. (“Can’t you just feel the moonshine?” Taylor sings soothingly.)
From the mountains to the sea, under the sun by day and the moon by night, North Carolina shines in an exemplary way relative to its food safety and food protection and defense infrastructure, according to Anita MacMullan, food administrator of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NCDA&CS) Food and Drug Protection Division (FDPD).
“The FDPD stands out by demonstrating a deep commitment to quality and maintaining strong relationships with federal, state, and local regulatory partners,” says MacMullan, who oversees North Carolina’s food regulatory program. “The NCDA&CS constantly seeks ways to innovate, improve efficiency, increase effectiveness, and be at the forefront of new food safety and defense initiatives.”
Through Fire and Rain: Radiant Regulatory Rays
MacMullan believes the strengths of the FDPD relative to food safety oversight and defense capabilities can be found in the Division’s continuous involvement in new programs and initiatives designed to strengthen capacities and capabilities surrounding public health protection.
Per the U.S. CDC Foodborne Outbreak Online Database (FOOD Tool), North Carolina had just 11 foodborne outbreaks in 2014. (2015 data is not available as we go to press.)
“One of the greatest strengths of the FDPD is leadership that has consistently supported the pursuit of activities that improve our programs, increase efficiencies, broaden the scope of our regulatory oversight, and, ultimately, enhance public health protection,” MacMullan elaborates. “The other strength of the FDPD is the commitment, at all levels within the organization, to continuous improvement and the tireless pursuit of excellence. Due to the strength of our leadership and commitment to excellence in all endeavors, the FDPD has become a leader among state programs in establishing and sustaining new programs and initiatives to improve our regulatory oversight and defense capabilities.”
That’s a big deal, since there’s an inventory of more than 13,000 food firms subject to inspection in North Carolina. “Of that, approximately 1,900 are manufacturing firms, with the remainder consisting of retail operations such as grocery stores, home processors, retail frozen desserts, and other industry types,” MacMullan mentions. “In the manufacturing firm category we include bakeries, milling operations, seafood processors, wholesale frozen desserts, beverage bottlers, prepared salads, sauces, snack foods, and warehouses.”
The FDPD was one of five state regulatory programs that piloted the first version of the Manufactured Food Regulatory Program Standards (MFRPS) in 2007.
Developed by FDA, along with selected state program managers, the MFRPS are an optional set of standards that can be used by the states (if they so choose) as a guide for continuous improvement for state food manufacturing programs.
“The concept of applying standards to regulatory programs was new at that time and pilot states did this work without the benefit of additional funding or other means of assistance,” MacMullan points out.
MacMullan is quick to extol what she believes are some of the key achievements of the FDPD’s MFRPS involvement. These include developing a comprehensive database to manage inspection, sampling, and compliance information; increasing training to field and compliance staff; creating procedures and policies to bring uniformity and consistency to MFRPS; establishing an audit program to assess the performance of North Carolina’s regulatory program, leveraging Rapid Response Team (RRT) expertise in response activities; and ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation of the FDPD laboratory.
In 2008, the FDPD was in the first group of state programs that received funding from FDA under the RRT cooperative agreement. This cooperative agreement provided resources to build emergency response capacity and capability and to implement MFRPS.
“In collaboration with other RRT states, our program participated in the development of the national RRT Best Practices Manual and continues to contribute to national emergency response activities,” MacMullan relates. “Our RRT has been involved in training our own staff on emergency response activities, including the use of an Incident Command System, as well as collaborating with other states on similar training and table top exercises to ensure that we have the skills necessary to address food emergencies in our state.”
MacMullan boasts that the FDPD’s laboratory becoming ISO/IEC 17025 accredited in 2010 was an accomplishment that not many state agricultural laboratories had achieved at that time. “Having an ISO accredited laboratory sends a very strong message to regulated industry and regulatory partners about our commitment to accurate, defensible data,” she emphasizes. “Additionally, accreditation allows for greater utility of our laboratory data for public health protection.
“Our laboratory also participates in the Food Emergency Response Network (FERN), a nationally integrated lab system to provide surge capacity testing during food emergencies or foodborne illness outbreaks,” MacMullan continues. “By participating in FERN, our laboratory stays current on new methodologies and procedures for food testing. Participating in FERN, along with being an ISO accredited lab, places our laboratory in an elite group of state and national laboratories that conduct critical food testing.”
The FDPD staff serves on the Produce Safety Alliance, the Food Safety Preventive Controls Alliance, the FDA sponsored Partnership for Food Protection, and other working groups focused on advancing an integrated food safety system. “In collaboration with the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture and FDA, the NCDA&CS has been at the forefront of developing a model operational plan for state implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule,” MacMullan adds. “The FDPD is also a member of the North Carolina Fresh Produce Safety Task Force and works with task force members on issues related to produce production.”
The NCDA&CS is a founding member of the North Carolina Food Safety and Defense Task Force (FSDTF), a multi-agency, multi-stakeholder partnership created to better protect North Carolina’s food supply. Created in 2003 by a Governor’s executive order, the FSDTF brings together federal, state, and local regulatory agencies; academia; agriculture; industry; consumer groups; law enforcement; and other technical experts to improve the safety and security of the state’s food supply.
How Sweet It Is: Industry at the Table
“A strength we have in North Carolina is that industry has a strong voice when it comes to food safety issues,” says Stephen Tracey, CP-FS, CFS, the food safety manager for Salisbury, North Carolina-based Delhaize America-Food Lion and chair of the state’s FSDTF executive committee.
Regulatory agencies, including the NCDA&CS and state public health officials, have invited North Carolina food industry representatives to serve on various relevant committees and councils over the years, Tracey points out.
“Industry being invited to the table has been an important way we have mutually enhanced communications among our organizations,” Tracey emphasizes. “The end result is that we have a strong food safety culture in our state. With all of us working together, regulatory officials understand that food industry representatives want to do the right thing for customers and industry leaders understand that regulators are protecting public health.”
Research, Extension, Education Powerhouse
“North Carolina is one of the most agriculturally diverse states in the country, and our food safety efforts reflect that diversity,” says Lee-Ann Jaykus, PhD, a William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor in the Department of Food, Bioprocessing, and Nutrition Sciences (FBNS) at North Carolina State University (NCSU), Raleigh.
According to Dr. Jaykus, an impressive and inspirational list of food safety research, extension, and educational activities spearheaded by NCSU are not only unique to the Tarheel State, but wildly significant nationally and internationally.
“Relative to research, NCSU faculty and collaborators are conducting basic science research on the biology of Salmonella, Campylobacter, and Listeria monocytogenes,” she begins. “There is also myriad applied food safety research at NCSU covering the commodities of red meat, poultry, fresh produce, and seafood.”
In 2011, NCSU received a landmark $25 million grant from USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to study human noroviruses across the food supply chain.
Norovirus is the most common cause of acute gastroenteritis in the U.S., according to the CDC. Each year, it reportedly causes 19 million to 21 million illnesses and contributes to 56,000 to 71,000 hospitalizations and 570 to 800 deaths nationwide. Norovirus is also the most common cause of foodborne disease outbreaks in the U.S.
You’ve Got a Friend: NoroCORE
Under Dr. Jaykus’s expert leadership as scientific director, what has become the iconic USDA-NIFA Food Virology Collaborative (NoroCORE—Norovirus Collaborative for Outreach, Research, and Education) consists of a team of more than 30 collaborators from academia (representing 15 universities), industry, and government. The team’s mission is to increase understanding of foodborne viruses; educate producers, processors, and food handlers on safe handling and preparation of food; and develop control and management strategies to reduce food contamination before and after harvesting. The ultimate goal is to design effective control measures and reduce the number of virus-caused foodborne illnesses.
Dr. Jaykus is proud to boast about NoroCORE’s accomplishments to date.
“Basic science research has led to better understanding of the biology of noroviruses,” she relates. “We have produced several ‘designer’ molecules that can be used to better diagnose disease and detect norovirus in foods and the environment. And we have collected epidemiological data that refines estimates of the burden of norovirus disease in the U.S.”
Moreover, the NoroCORE scientists have identified several technologies and tools, including copper, aerosolized hydrogen peroxide, and pulsed light, that are showing promise in inactivating human noroviruses on surfaces and foods. They have also produced a reagent exchange and comprehensive literature database that supports investigators and facilitates collaboration.
“We have trained more than 20 graduate students who now have specific expertise in food virology,” Dr. Jaykus says. “We have provided significant extension and outreach to several sectors, including, among others, food service and grocery; sanitation and hygiene; testing and test kit manufacturing companies; molluscan shellfish and fresh produce industries; the cruise ship industry; and environmental and public health professionals. Besides all of that, our public outreach endeavors feature novel messaging that includes fact sheets, infographics, animations, and various social media campaigns.”
Many other accomplishments are expected by the completion of the NoroCORE project in 2017, Dr. Jaykus emphasizes.
Extension and Education
In support of the FSMA, NCSU offers a strong extension and outreach program to fresh produce growers and packers, with an emphasis on small farmers. “A vegetable fermentation lab on campus sponsored by the USDA Agricultural Research Service conducts basic and applied research, and significant outreach, to this group of stakeholders,” Dr. Jaykus notes.
“NCSU offers a food entrepreneurial program that supports small food businesses in product development and safety,” she says. “Our department provides expertise in microbiological risk assessment. And we offer strong outreach to consumers and other entities, including food service, schools, and farmers markets, with an emphasis on promoting food safety through the use of training and social media.”
The FBNS offers one of the only graduate minors in food safety in the country. Novel distance education college credit courses, certificate programs, workshops, and training opportunities, with a focus on the food industry, cover Good Manufacturing Practices, sanitation, and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points programs to start the list. Not surprisingly, there’s an online course on norovirus, which is geared for industry and the regulatory community.
“Some participants of the NoroCORE team are even putting together an online food virology curriculum geared to graduate students,” Dr. Jaykus adds. “It’s an opportunity to learn all they ever wanted to know about vomiting and diarrhea!”
(Do you think James Taylor would ever write a song about that?)
Is your state newsworthy?
Your input regarding what states should be featured in this Across The Nation series is welcomed! Send a brief note highlighting what you believe is great relative to food safety/protection in any state, touching on public health, regulatory, academia, and/or industry components. Send recommendations to Linda L. Leake at LLLeake@aol.com. Hurry, there are only four more states to be featured in this year-long series!–FQ&S