Jim Mann, the executive director of Handwashing for Life Institute, emailed the following response to the Food Safety News article titled "A Call for Uniform Model Food Code Application":
Uniformly good vs. Uniformly enforceable. Of these two choices, I believe the FDA favors the latter.
You make some very good points in your article. I do think the adopting of uniform baseline standards is a good idea but can be overstated.
First, the far and away leading pathogen identified in outbreaks is norovirus. What uniform laws would you suggest to eliminate the predominant fecal-hand-oral pathway? Wear gloves and put them on with contaminated hands? When to change gloves … when soiled as measured by "sight and touch"?
Second, you missed the fact that industry does have input into the Model Food Code via the biennial Conference for Food Protection. It is always frustrating but often effective.
Industry is credited with many of the improvements in the Model Food Code. I don’t believe a government agency by itself can develop as thorough and meaningful enhancements to the code as the current collaborative method has accomplished, including input from the million restaurateurs who must train more millions. All the benefits of pasteurization etc. can be lost by serving that breakfast with contaminated hands. Hands of employees might even have been contaminated by a sick customer. Can you foresee a law to keep sick customers out of restaurants?
Pasteurized milk, pasteurized eggs and more support for irradiated foods all make sense and industry support is growing without more laws, based on operator marketing and consumer value interpretations. Industry could use help allaying consumer concerns about irradiated foods.
When you suggest some operators put profits before food safety, one could also see the temptation for lawyers to prefer laws, even the unenforceable ones, over food safety. The current Model Food Code has many unenforceable paragraphs, approved by an FDA lawyer. Some sentences actually increase the risk of outbreaks and damage the FDA’s credibility. The science-based common sense alternatives are often more difficult to enforce thus not included. Glove use is a great example of this seemingly unresolveable issue where contaminated gloves trump a clean hand during inspections.
As much outrage as the media infused public have for foodborne outbreaks, the actual risks in foodservice is quite low. Perhaps your research department can provide some meaningful comparison to make your position risk-based thus helping operators first and secondarily to prioritize the flow of new laws.
The system does need some fixes but the risk will never be zero and that one outbreak will still grab the headlines, engage the politicians and drive more laws. This cycle is especially good for law firms but does little for food safety. Don’t get me wrong, I believe Marler Clark has done wonders for food safety by raising the fear factor while educating the industry.
Lastly, the current State based system makes a huge contribution to food safety when a confident jurisdictional health department leader goes outside the code to facilitate field research and provides the nation with a valuable "lab", raising the confidence of other jurisdictions and States to adopt similar advances. Can you imagine what a government agency would have to spend to conduct research on that scale? Or how fast could Congress act to bring new systems and technologies into the marketplace? And their legal exposure?
The Model Food Code has one intrinsic flaw. It is written for enforcement rather than teaching, coaching and leading. It is over prescriptive and thus hard to implement, uniform or not. Grinding through its development leaves the regulatory agency feeling they are in charge of food safety rather than instilling that accountability with the operators. In the field the FDA staff are science-based educators, but their ranks at headquarters in DC swell with lawyers.
Maybe the Model Food Code should be just for operators as they are the ones sued. It could be six words: Do not make your customers sick.
All great points from a very knowledgeable individual.