Oct 4 2012
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Food Safety: "Public Health at Work"

September was Food Safety Month, and health departments across the country continue to face food recalls such as the recent peanut butter recall. NewPublicHealth caught up with Joe Russell, MPH, public health officer of the Flathead City-County Department of Health in Montana, and chair of the food safety committee of the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO). NACCHO, the leader, partner, catalyst and voice of the nation’s 2,800 local health departments, works with local health department leaders to improve food safety and prevent foodborne illness and is a key partner of the Council to Improve Foodborne Outbreak Response (CIFOR). Additional partners include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Association of State and Territorial Health Officers.

Foodborne illness in the United States is estimated by the CDC to cause 48 million cases of illness, more than 128,000 hospitalizations, and 3,000 deaths annually. Hospitalizations due to foodborne illnesses are estimated to cost more than $3 billion, while lost productivity linked to the illnesses is estimated to cost between $20 billion and $40 billion each year.

In 2009, CIFOR released its Guidelines for Foodborne Disease Outbreak Response. Local and state agencies vary in the approach to, experience with, and capacity to respond to foodborne disease outbreaks, says Russell. The CIFOR guidelines were developed to provide a strong resource for anyone working in food safety programs. The guidelines are targeted to local, state, and federal agencies.

NewPublicHealth: Recalled food seems to be a constant presence in the news. Why is that?

Joe Russell: It’s an indication of public health at work. The surveillance has gotten a lot better. The National Association of County and City Health Officials is proud to be an inaugural partner of CIFOR, which is now evaluating the impact of the guidelines we released.

NPH: What else will NACCHO be working on to help improve food safety going forward? 

Joe Russell: We’re looking at legal barriers to an effective response to an outbreak and we are working with the Food and Drug Administration on a project to look at scoring and posting scores on food safety to both help the public’s perception on food safety as well as create safer retail food environments.We’ve also launched a mentor/mentee program so that local health departments without a robust food safety program can learn from departments with more experience.

NPH: What goals are you focusing on with respect to food safety?

Joe Russell: About one in six Americans every year gets foodborne illness. We’d like to improve that rate and we can do that by having integrated food safety—it takes a lot of organizations working together. At the local health department level, our primary focus is on retail. We can do a lot at that level, but the whole system needs to be better coordinated. The Food Safety Modernization Act was passed to make our food safety system better, and we’re an integral part of that, too.