Abraham Lincoln was once quoted as saying, “Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle.” You must be wondering how long you have to wait before you begin to see the integrated food safety system that government agencies have been promoting. Are there target dates, timelines and plans? Who are the ones who “hustle” while we wait?

Actually, food safety stakeholders should now be able to recognize with some clarity that the vision of an integrated Food Safety Management System (FSMS) is currently being implemented, and it is beginning to illustrate great promise. An FSMS really isn’t anything new, as it has been employed for some time now. Let’s look back to 1937.

The Elixir Sulfanilamide

Government’s response to the sulfanilamide episode in 1937 may have been the first truly integrated effort in food and drug safety control efforts. It was an exceptional effort that clearly saved lives. Not only were federal, state and local agencies involved, but doctors, pharmacists and the news media played roles as well.

During September and October 1937, sulfanilamide was responsible for the deaths of more than 100 people in 15 states, many of whom were children. This incident led to the passage of the 1938 Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act), which increased the authority of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to regulate drugs.

Sulfanilamide was used to treat streptococcal infections and had been used safely for some time in tablet and powder form. In June 1937, S.E. Massengill Co. found that sulfanilamide would dissolve in diethylene glycol, and after testing it for flavor and appearance, began to market the product in liquid form. The company sent 633 shipments all over the country.

When deaths started to be reported, FDA set out to retrieve all shipments of the drug by utilizing their entire field staff of 239 inspectors and chemists. State and local health officials joined in the search as well.

This was not the easiest task as FDA had to track down the company’s 200 salesmen and review approximately 20,000 sales slips.

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Food Safety Management really isn’t anything new, as it has been employed for some time now. Let’s look back to 1937.

Without anyone really recognizing it, this entire response effort was, perhaps, the first instance of a fully national integrated system that included the coordination and persistence of multi-jurisdictional health agencies, along with the effective actions of the medical community and the news media. As a result, most of the elixir was recovered. Of 240 gallons manufactured and distributed, 234 gallons and 1 pint were retrieved; the remainder that had been consumed caused the deaths of the victims. Imagine how many lives would have been lost without an integrated response.

This event did more than hasten enactment of the FD&C Act. It also clearly demonstrated how food and drug safety is a national concern best addressed through a nationally recognized rule and a nationally integrated system designed to prevent such tragedies.

Early Efforts in Federal-State Coordination

Early efforts to improve federal and state coordination are marked by clear intentions. Seldom would anyone use the term “integration,” instead referring to “contracts,” “partnership” and “leveraging.” There were plenty of milestones that expanded the idea of the need for closer federal, state and local collaboration. Some of those milestones can be seen in the illustrated timeline.

While many federal statutes and regulations preceded the creation of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), it was this act that directed FDA to better coordinate food safety resources with its partners at the state, local, territorial and tribal levels. FSMA has had a huge impact on the IFSS effort. All previous visions and hopes of an IFSS were weakened and difficult to advance without the strength of a congressional mandate. Because of FSMA, the country could now truly begin to develop that IFSS aspired to by so many for so long.

Source: Food Safety Magazine

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