Las Cruces – In the United States annually, nearly one-in-six Americans, or 48 million people, get sick from food borne diseases, according to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those stricken, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 actually die. This is a significant public health burden that is largely preventable.
Under provisions of the Food Safety Modernization Act, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has expanded its efforts to protect public health by focusing more on preventing food safety problems rather than relying primarily on reacting to problems after they occur.
The Southwest Border Food Safety and Defense Center, housed at New Mexico State University, is helping the FDA strengthen the food safety system in New Mexico.
The director of the center's Office of Biosecurity, Billy Dictson, says the potential for a major food hazard incident comes from people's lack of awareness of food recalls. "We are having trouble getting the word out about hazardous food recalls. Food remains on home pantry selves, where it can be consumed and cause illness and, potentially, death."
To help resolve this nationwide problem, the FDA is asking every state to form Food Protection Alliances at both the state and county level. The Southwest Border Food Safety and Defense Center has been designated as the organization in New Mexico to coordinate the establishment of these alliances.
The state's Food Protection Alliance is open to any agency in New Mexico that is interested in food safety or security. Dictson says representation is primarily from the New Mexico Department of Health and the NM Environmental Improvement Division, as well as food producers and food processors.
"We held a state meeting in November 2010 where 150 people spent two days talking about how we could do a better job of protecting the food in our state," Dictson said. "Some of the issues identified involved developing training that could be done at the county level to help people to protect themselves from food contamination incidents, and ways to help inform community members about food recalls."
The state Food Protection Alliance is turning to NMSU Extension home economists to form the county alliances, with membership to include county emergency managers, county health department representatives, state environmental department inspectors and representatives from hospital and school food service departments.
The purpose of the county alliances is to have people at that level network together to ensure food safety in their communities.
When there is a food recall, one critical issue is getting better information to the consumers. The state health department informs the media and others who broadcast the warnings, but not everyone is tuned in to those broadcasts. Dictson says the alliance is an effort to get more boots on the ground, so to speak.
"The health department and food safety inspectors have the legislative jurisdiction over informing the public of food recalls or food safety issues," Dictson said. "But they are also busy trying to find the source of the contaminated food in the state, and they need help getting the word to the consumers."
In this new scenario, the county Food Protection Alliance would work to inform the residents through various methods, including the simple act of placing flyers at community gathering places, such as grocery stores, community centers and schools.
For more information about the county alliances, or to become involved, contact your county's Extension office.