Limited recourses when it comes to monitoring food safety could pose a threat to public health, while some consumers also put themselves at risk through the food choices they make, according to scientists who spoke at the IFT in Orlando last week.
Speaking at the world's largest annual meeting on food science and ingredients, an FDA official said that resources are fewer and the responsibilities greater for ensuring the country's food safety and protecting its public health.
According to Robert Brackett, who heads up the FDA's Center for Food Safety (CFSAN) and Applied Nutrition, his department is currently operating in "an era of austerity," even though drastic cutbacks within the FDA are not imminent.
However, CFSAN's workforce is still due to be reduced to 817 full-time employees in 2007, down from 950 in 2003.
The cutbacks mean that certain programs such as pesticide monitoring will be discontinued, with the center planning only to pursue what Brackett described as "serious" problems about dietary supplements and cosmetics.
"Generally recognized as Safe designations on food and food additives and biotechnology notification programs are on the chopping block," said the IFT report of Brackett's talk.
CFSAN is due to focus around half of its resources on enforcing and increasing food safety, and 20 percent on defending the food supply. This latter sector has increased with the threats of pandemic flu and terrorism, said Brackett.
The heightened profile of nutrition issues such as coping with obesity, clarifying health claims and modernizing food labels will take up 15 percent of the center's efforts, "quite an increase in resources," Brackett said. He anticipates the government will become better at sharing information with consumers and industry.
"We want to remain the world's gold standard for food safety," he said.
The health risk of 'raw is natural'
In the meantime, another speaker at the IFT said that some consumers may be putting themselves at an increased risk from food pathogens due to the food choices they make.
The IFT's expert report on antimicrobial resistance identifies consumer demand for less processed foods as a possible source of the increased occurrence in resistant bacteria. According to the study, this is the result of fewer antimicrobial applications to food that inactivate pathogens during processing.
But there is a disconnect between public perception and the reality of food processing, said food safety expert Dean Cliver of the University of California at Davis.
"After we organize our safety efforts in more elegant ways, we're still back to the idea that processing is important. But the consuming public is being told that totally unprocessed foods are doing them good," he said at the IFT.
"The perception is that raw food is 'natural' and any preservation inevitably diminishes nutritional value. Now, without cooking, things that were not a problem before are turning up."
And part of this blame should be placed on food manufacturers, according to Cliver.
"The claim that 'raw is natural' has triggered a backlash against food technology. 'Raw is natural' is trendy enough so that some of the big companies have gotten on the bandwagon."