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and the need for a better understanding of how to best implement a risk-based food safety regulatory system.
Presently, an effective way to illustrate the benefits and thus rank the effectiveness of food safety programs at the federal program level in a manner truly driven by objective data does not exist as traditionally these programs have not been authorized by Congress. Current surveillance and trace-back networks in food safety seem insufficient to provide the quantitative estimates necessary to accurately define the benefits (in terms of lives saved or illnesses prevented) of a given regulatory program. In fact, I do not think that people know what it would take in practical terms to develop an information infrastructure for such an analysis. Without quantitative data to link programs and outcomes, support for public health programs like food safety from the Congress and the private sector can be hard to generate. Recent efforts to alleviate this problem include PulseNet and FoodNet, two surveillance and monitoring systems that were developed to aid in tracing food-borne illness. Given adequate funding, these networks seem to have the potential to provide quality data to allow fairly accurate estimates of the national burden of food-borne illness.
Another area challenging Congress is determining how to better coordinate food safety activities across the different federal agencies and identify the necessary changes in existing food safety statutes. Possible solutions thus far include establishment of a unified budget authority, creation of a single food safety agency, and/or conception of an integrated process for food safety programs. A recent attempt to address this problem was initiated in 1998 with the creation of the President's Council on Food Safety, a committee charged with the task of coordinating budgets and developing programs for food safety activities across agencies. Much remains to be resolved regarding the extent of changes necessary to make the system more effective and several different legislative programs proposing alterations to the system are being reviewed by Congress.
Finally, perhaps one of the greatest challenges that Congress faces in addressing public health issues in today's environment is identifying which aspects of the regulatory system need to change to foster better decision-making practices. As mentioned above, agencies have developed many information management techniques to deal with these issues. But public and industry participation will be key in determining these changes and making this process transparent. A good example of recent efforts to create these types of solutions are Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) based systems—systems that identify critical hazard points along food production lines and then develop specific techniques to control these.
In conclusion, there are many countervailing pressures that regulatory agencies must take into consideration when developing food safety policy. These range from identifying which products present the greatest risks to determining how to include all stakeholders in decision-making processes. Agencies are currently identifying ways to increase industry and consumer involvement in developing alternatives to command and control regulations and recent efforts to incorporate such solutions have yielded many valuable lessons. Effective navigation of these issues will determine the level of success that food safety agencies have in achieving the most cost effective risk reductions possible while sustaining a food supply that consumers can rely on.