While the Environmental Health professional’s role in food safety is marginalized in some places (such as in Florida, where the Environmental Health staff conduct less than 10% of the food safety inspections) there is a growing need for their involvement directed toward the safety of fresh produce.
With experience in the safety of water, land use, plans review, wastewater disposal and treatment, soils, vector control, the use of sanitizers, pesticides and the like, I believe the environmental health profession holds one of the best, tangible responses to today’s produce dilemma.
Unless adequate funds become available, the Food Safety Modernization Act, the federal response to the current public health crises affecting our nation’s primary producers, will not provide the solution.
The impact of the repeated outbreaks of foodborne illness should be a stern warning to our nation’s legislators, but they seem oblivious to the problem. When 30 people die from tainted cantaloupe, bells and whistles should be sounding in Washington; instead, its dead air in D.C.
If a terrorist attack killed 30 Americans, would our nation’s leaders say, ”We cannot afford a response...?"
If FDA cannot do this job alone (and why should they?), then we have an untapped resource in our County Public Health Units. There are over 3,000 health departments in the US, with more than enough infrastructures to support the produce food safety regulation/enforcement task, both in facilities and on farms. If properly trained, managed and funded, environmental health professionals could expand the roles they now play in protecting public health, into agriculture.
Rules must be developed and the inspection workforce needs to be trained in a somewhat new discipline, but the qualified Environmental Health Specialist has the capabilities needed now. With proper guidance and support, they can be effective in produce facilities and on farms.
In addition to our local public health professionals, there should also be an expanded role for state Departments of Agriculture and even USDA to help fill in the gaps in produce safety regulation and enforcement.
While we search for ways to prevent the next food safety disaster, consider properly funding and supporting local environmental health protection efforts. Give our county public health units what they need for the effective enforcement of laws and rules and we will see a reduction in foodborne illness.