U.S. agencies must talk to boost food safety: study

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. federal agencies must do a better job of sharing information with each other as well as state, local and private organizations to combat deadly bacteria such as E. coli that threaten thousands of people each year, according to a study released on Thursday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that 76 million people in the United States get sick every year with some sort of foodborne illness and that 5,000 die.

The 148-page report said the current system is impaired because thousands of local health departments, university researchers, corporations and other institutions often collect data for their own use, with no mandate to share information.

To improve the food safety network, researchers said, incentives for government and private organizations to collaborate must replace the obstacles to sharing information.

“We’re missing opportunities to prevent illness,” said Michael Taylor, a professor of health policy at George Washington University, who co-authored the report.

“We are missing opportunities to make food safer. We don’t have the best information about what the problems are and what the solutions can be,” he said in a phone interview.

The report noted that individual government agencies have a sense of ownership that can deter data sharing while the food industry has competitive, liability and other reasons.

“The fact is that it’s a system that’s kind of evolved over the years so that you got all this fragmentation of responsibilities,” said Taylor.

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The United States has nearly 3,000 local health departments and retail inspection agencies, millions of agricultural producers and a wide range of government and university researchers, the study said. The federal government alone has 15 agencies that handle food safety including the U.S. Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration.

The study made several recommendations to improve the food safety system. Among the suggestions were:

-- A mandate from Congress or the president requiring all federal agencies to coordinate information collection and maximize data sharing among government and the private sector.

-- Create within the Department of Health and Human Services a council that has federal, state, and local officials to improve the collection and access to data. It would report annually to Congress about progress and obstacles that remain.

-- A panel of researchers and consumer groups to identify common problems and identify best practices such as changes in technology that can facilitate sharing data.

Reporting by Christopher Doering; Editing by David Gregorio