I was the only person with the label of “Consumer Representative” in a rather diverse council about to make decisions that could easily impact every single American. Yes, two other large councils in different conference meeting rooms also had one person, each with the same label, but I sat feeling outnumbered in this situation. This was not the first time I was alone with a “consumer perspective,” and it probably won’t be the last.

The Conference for Food Protection (CFP) supports complete and uniform adoption of the  FDA Food Code. According to the FDA, local, state, tribal, and federal regulators use the  FDA Food Code  as a “scientifically sound technical and legal basis” for regulating restaurants, grocery stores, and institutions such as nursing homes. Nobody would benefit from food safety rules that are not consistent from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. 

The CFP meets biennially to identify and address emerging problems of food safety and to formulate recommendations. According to their published mission, representatives from state and local food-regulatory agencies, the food industry, federal government, academia, and consumer organizations seek to balance the interests of regulatory and industry people while providing an open forum for the consideration of ideas from any source.

Before their 23 voting-member executive board votes on items to pass forward to the FDA, “deep-dive assessments” are conducted over two and a half days by three councils, each comprised of about 20 representatives from various stakeholder perspectives. 

In mid-April, I joined the other representatives in Boise, Idaho, to hear issues – reports on council work, changes to existing codes, and proposed additions to codes. At the front of a conference room sat a large ring of meeting tables aligned to form a square. Name tents at each council member’s place included that representative’s affiliation, such as a state or county regulatory agency or a grocery store/restaurant. The large group also included one representative each from CDC, FDA, USDA, and representatives from academia. As the sole consumer representative, my name tent listed the name of a consumer advocacy group – STOP Foodborne Illness. 

The audience included alternates for the council members and a number of industry association representatives who would present proposals for consideration. As council members asked questions, I, too, felt the need to inquire as to how the proposed changes would benefit consumers, not just retailers and restaurants.

“My initial concerns of an imbalance of interests found a solidarity that broke free of labels and descriptors on name tents.”

At times, a perfect, “ideal-conditions” scenario would be presented to highlight how a proposed change to the food code would be convenient for a retailer. At those times, I was quick to point out the many “real” conditions found during outbreak investigations and the many “real” consequences for victims and their families.

AN UNEXPECTED SOLIDARITY.  As the meetings progressed, my initial concerns of an imbalance of interests found a solidarity that broke free of labels and descriptors on name tents. Presenters from industry also proposed changes that, though they did benefit retailers, also benefitted consumers.

These included a “happy medium” proposal related to events where long-term water or power outages would normally result in a grocery store being shut down until local agencies could get to them. The proposal enabled some limited operations in retail that did not compromise food safety (e.g., stopping food production and service, while continuing to sell non-perishables to customers in need of food.)

Another proposal would support state legislators adopting the FDA Food Code in a means that could expedite the process if desired.

I also witnessed regulators speaking with industry association representatives during breaks. Seeing this, my first thoughts went back to the CFP’s antitrust statement that is printed in materials and spoken by the council leaders at the start of the meetings (Editor’s Note: That statement reads, in part, “To avoid antitrust allegations it is necessary to avoid discussions of sensitive topics. ... For your protection, the Conference for Food Protection recommends that, should one of these subjects be brought up, it would be in your best interest to voice your objection and disassociate yourself from the discussion if it continues.”)

However, I saw council members helping to fine-tune proposals to meet the intentions of existing codes and, on more than one occasion, cautioning an industry representative about a conflict or about opening too wide of a loophole. 

Yes, these councils may have had only one designated “Consumer Representative” at the table, but my impression of this biennial meeting is that all of the council members truly represented the needs and best interests of consumers, not just those of the industry.

In a time when most policy around food is tied to profit, we need to maintain that food policy focuses on affordable access to healthy, nutritious, and safe food. We may wear labels and associate with one group or another, but in the end, we are all consumers.