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  1. Conversations with Experts on Food Topics

FDA Commemorates 30 Years of the FDA Food Code to Enhance Safe Handling of Food in a Retail Setting

A Conversation on the FDA’s 2022 Food Code with Glenda Lewis & Andre Pierce

A Conversation on the FDA’s 2022 Food Code with Glenda Lewis & Andre Pierce

This year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is commemorating 30 years of the FDA Food Code (Food Code), a model code that provides regulators and industry partners of retail and food service establishments (restaurants, supermarkets, nursing homes) scientifically accurate information regarding food safety. The food code addresses diverse areas such as cooking temperatures, maintaining equipment and employee health and is intended for jurisdictions to adopt as regulations. Food Code recommendations aim to reduce the risks of foodborne illnesses within retail food establishments and protect consumers. State, Local, Tribal and Territorial jurisdictions use the FDA Food Code as a model to develop or update their own food safety rules and to be consistent with national food safety practices. The Food Code reflects input from all stakeholders: regulators, industry, academia, and consumers. The December 2022 release kicks off the celebration for the 30-year anniversary of the Food Code.

In a conversation, Glenda R. Lewis, M.S.P.H. Director of Retail Food Protection, Office of Food Safety at the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) and Andre Pierce, M.P.A. Director of Retail Food Protection, Office of State Cooperative Programs (OSCP) discuss the FDA’s efforts to develop and update the Food Code, the importance of input from stakeholders and regulators, and what impact they expect the new Food Code to have. They both bring a unique perspective to the Food Code. Glenda and her team author the Food Code with updated information every four years in a full edition and in the interim two years with a Supplement to the full edition Food Code. Andre and his teamwork with states and local regulators to implement Food Code provisions.

1. How has the Food Code developed and why is it important?

Glenda: It’s important that we take a risk-based approach in developing national retail food policy such as the Food Code, so that it’s focused on the areas most important to public health. We make sure that all our stakeholders—national/federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial regulators; industry; academia and consumers—have a say in what the Food Code says. We receive input from these groups through their feedback and recommendations at the Conference for Food Protection (CFP) biennial meeting.  Upon receipt of the CFP recommendations, the FDA gives its full attention to each recommendation during agency review, seeking to keep the Food Code risk- and science-based, and science informed, as we respond to CFP recommendations. The agency takes seriously its role to protect public health and I think the Food Code is important because as a model code, it provides a uniform approach to the regulation and inspection of retail food establishments in our country. It’s guidance on food safety and sanitation can be uniformly adopted by the state, local, tribal, and territorial regulatory authorities and implemented by the retail segment of the industry. It makes sense that food safety requirements, such as cooking temperatures, should be as uniform as possible. Consumers expect food to be safe no matter where they receive it.  

Andre: The common goal of the national retail food safety system is to reduce the occurrence of risk factors that cause foodborne illness in food establishments. The FDA Food Code is a framework of uniformity and consistency of the latest science-based best practices in retail food establishments. State, local, tribal and territorial jurisdictions are responsible for inspecting retail facilities. The FDA Food Code is important because it gives the nation’s health inspectors updated common language to promote food safety best practices.

2. What is the impact the Food Code has had over the past 30 years? What are its’ greatest achievements?

Glenda: The Food Code’s impact is widespread—as of 2021, nearly 90% of the U.S. population lives in a state that has adopted some version of the FDA Food Code. This is a huge achievement because it means that nearly 90% of the U.S. population lives in a state with food safety regulations that help prevent the occurrence of foodborne illnesses. In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a study that showed a direct link between adoption of key Food Code provisions and lower rates of foodborne norovirus outbreaks (See summary page and direct link to the study). Preventing foodborne illness is the biggest Food Code achievement. Other achievements include the addition of code provisions that address food allergens, cold holding temperature for leafy greens, hamburger cooking temperatures to help control for E. coli O157:H7, and the use of no bare hand contact on ready-to-eat foods. 

Andre: I experienced the positive impact of the Food Code adoption first-hand. Before coming to the FDA, I worked in a jurisdiction where food safety rules were based on the 1976 “Food Service Sanitation Manual.”  By conducting retail risk factor data collection surveys, we found significant gaps in preventive controls. For example, the state did not have a requirement that prevented food workers from contacting ready-to-eat foods with bare hands, or an updated preventive temperature requirement for holding cold foods. After adopting the FDA Food Code with its preventive measures, our health inspectors observed reductions in risk factors in retail establishments. It made the case for our state to support adoption of the most recent version of the FDA Food Code. I’m proud that the state’s policy makers saw value in adopting a science-based code with preventive public health measures for the citizens of our state.

3. How is the Food Code generally updated? What were some updates this year?

Glenda: The Food Code cycle starts with the Conference for Food Protection (CFP) Meeting. Every two years, federal, state, local, tribal and territorial regulators along with industry, academic, and consumer partners, meet to discuss suggested changes to the Food Code. The CFP then sends recommendations for updates to the FDA, who then develops a formal response to the CFP request. Once we have identified the necessary changes that will go into the Food Code, we begin working on either a Supplement to the last full edition of the Food Code, or a new full edition of the Food Code. Within the agency, we work with subject matter experts to make sure the most current science is reflected in any updates.  We also work with Andre and the Office of State Cooperative programs to ensure agency decisions are made with awareness of the impact on State, Local, Tribal and Territorial and industry partners. We also discuss the impact of any changes to these partners and to consumers.

In terms of updates, the recently released 2022 Food Code recognizes sesame as the 9th major allergen and recommends that retailers inform consumers, in writing, of major food allergens as ingredients in unpackaged food. It also helps reduce barriers to food donations by clarifying for the first time that food donations from retail food establishments are acceptable as long as proper food safety practices are followed. This 2022 Food Code also established that dogs could dine with their owners at outdoor retail establishments, under certain conditions.

4. What is the FDA’s regulatory authority when it comes to the Food Code? How do you see state, local, tribal, and territorial regulators putting the Food Code in action?

Glenda: The FDA oversees 80% of the food supply in interstate commerce at both processing and distribution levels. State, local, tribal and territorial jurisdictions have authority at the retail level to regulate the retail food segment of the industry and conduct inspections in restaurants, grocery stores, schools, hospitals and other institutional food service facilities. The FDA is responsible for updating and issuing the Food Code, but to put the Food Code into action, state, local, tribal and territorial regulators must work with their legislators to adopt the Food Code within their jurisdictions. We rely on local and state regulators to educate legislators and industry partners, such as trade associations for food service and retail food store industry partners, on the importance of the Food Code - what it is, what its intent is, the rationale for the code provisions, and measures to apply the Food Code in food establishments to help both understand the protective measures that the Code provides, to help both understand the protective measures that the Code provides. 

5. Since the Food Code is voluntary, how do you encourage adoption of the Food Code?

Glenda: We emphasize the need for uniformity among jurisdictions and provide risk-based recommendations founded on the most recent scientific information. We write the Food Code in a way that allows it to be easily adopted by regulatory authorities and implemented by industry and encourage jurisdictions to adopt the most current version to ensure that every consumer is getting safe, wholesome food.

Andre: State, local, tribal, and territorial (SLTT) regulators have jurisdiction over retail food establishment inspections in this country including authority to adopt their own codes. Jurisdictional food codes with varying degrees of public health controls create challenges for regulators and industry that seek the best guidance for food protection. This lack of national uniformity offers different degrees of retail food protection across the United States. To encourage Food Code adoption, the FDA has developed Retail Program Standards that jurisdictions can actively participate in to examine their program’s effectiveness.  For example, Standard 1 requires a gap analysis of the jurisdiction’s code to the FDA Food Code to identify policy gaps. To further support the Program Standards, our retail food specialists in the Division of Retail Food Protection provide front line technical and educational support to jurisdictions, including support and promotion of the latest Code. The FDA also provides funding through cooperative agreements to encourage active participation in the Retail Program Standards, is contributing to the development of a Food Code Adoption toolkit and is working in conjunction with the Retail Food Safety Regulatory Association Collaborative to develop a national Food Code strategy.

6. How do you see the Food Code evolving in the coming years?

Glenda: What first comes to mind is the work we're doing to explore having the Food Code more electronically available in a format that stakeholders can use in the adoption process or in having it more readily available to all, such as creating an app. We’re exploring how to expand its online editing capabilities within the federal realm when we work with our internal retail partners, i.e., subject matter experts across CFSAN and the FDA, the FDA National Retail Food Team, or external federal partners. We are also working on content expansion because we want to cover new innovations in future Food Codes. New inventions, innovations, technologies, and equipment are being used in the food industry, so we need to stay current with emerging trends. 


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