The FDA has unveiled a new set of self-assessment tools to help the food and cosmetics industries minimize the risk of their products being intentionally contaminated.
Food protection - both in terms of safety and security - has been a major theme in recent times, and figured large in 2007.
For instance, last year contaminated peanut butter was found to be responsible for more than 300 people falling ill with salmonella poisoning, of which around 50 were hospitalized. The incident was said by manufacturer ConAgra to have been traced to moisture from a leaking roof and a faulty sprinkler system at its facility, which mixed with salmonella present in raw peanuts and dust at the plant.
Contaminated spinach was also found to be resulted in 206 illnesses, three deaths, and more than 100 people hospitalized.
Moreover, the threat of terrorism in modern times has led to fears that the food supply could be targeted by people seeking to launch a large-scale attack against the population of the United States.
The new tools, which were made available at the end of December, form part of the United States' overarching Food Protection Plan, itself was announced in November 2007.
The new tools are intended to help make guidance documents more user-friendly. They allow industry members to identify advisable actions and improvements to current practices that would help protect them from contamination by malicious, criminal or terrorist parties.
The FDA has developed five such tools, each one tailored to the processes used by a particular sector of the food or cosmetics industry, or a stage in the supply chain. As well as containing guidance on preventative measures, they also contain a series of questions, to which industry members can respond 'yes', 'no' or 'not applicable' or 'don't know'.
They are for: food producers, processors and transporters; importers and filers; retail food stores and food service establishments; cosmetics processors and transporters; and dairy farms, bulk milk transporters, bulk milk transport stations and fluid milk stations.
The documents are based on industry feedback, as well as re-packaged information also contained in previously released documents from the FDA.
When he announced the Food Protection Plan, FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach, MD, described it as a forward-oriented concept that combines use of science and information technology to identify potential hazards before they have an impact.
The plan has three strings to it, of which the first - the prevention of foodborne contamination - aims to promote increased corporate responsibility to prevent illness. It also seeks to identify and assess vulnerabilities and expand understanding and use of mitigation measures.
The second string to the plan is intervention at critical stages in the food supply chain, including focus inspections and risk-based sampling, risk-based surveillance, and better detection of signals that indicate contamination has occurred.
Finally the FDA is aiming to respond more rapidly to problems so as to reduce the impact, and improve its communication on risks to the public, industry, and other stakeholders.
"By preventing most harm before it can occur, enhancing our intervention methods at key points in the food production system, and strengthening our ability to respond immediately when problems are identified, FDA can provide a food protection framework that keeps the American food supply safe," he said.
The federal agency also announced in November that it is to award three laboratory grants to help spot radioactive material in food.
The three-year grants provide $250,000 a year to the Texas Department of State Health Services Laboratory, the New York Health Research/New York Department of Health, and the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene.
The grants will be used for supplies, personnel, and facility upgrades. The labs will also receive training in current food testing methodologies, participate in method development and validation, proficiency testing, and food defence surveillance assignments.
The new set of tools is available at http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/defguids.html