By Monica Charles
Every year, about one in six Americans get sick from unsafe food borne bacteria, according to the Partnership for Food Safety Education. At the Partnership, Executive Director Shelley Feist aims to reduce this number through communication to consumers.
At the PFSE, twenty-six partners in both the private and public sectors work together to end illness and death from food borne infections.
The partnership began in the mid-nineties after the Jack-In-The-Box outbreak, in which seven children died from e-coli poisoning.
“We’re focusing on raw unprocessed foods like raw meat, poultry, fish, eggs and produce, things that the consumer is handling,” Feist said. “Our role is to help the consumer where they have some control and can take action.”
Feist explained that the partnership was a novel concept for food safety, and that the partnership “was a partial response in the context of a larger government, regulatory, and industry effort to reduce the risk of food borne illness.”
As Executive Director of the partnership, Feist’s workload is heavy. “Without regard for what the topic area is, I have to ensure we have resources, I have to ensure we have a functioning board, and in this case of this nonprofit, the partnership aspect is a big deal,” Feist said.
The partnership’s small staff has a headquarters in Crystal City, Va., across the river from the nation’s capital. Even so, the staff does try to serve consumers at a national level. “It’s a tough job on a small budget,” Feist said.
Feist is not a stranger to Capitol Hill. She previously worked in the Senate, under two different senators.
While PFSE is a non-profit, non-partisan body, Feist said that the partnership has a unique relationship with the federal government. In 1997, a memorandum of understanding formed the partnership, which, according to Feist, is “highly unusual for a not-for-profit.”
The MOU included the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Secretary of Agriculture, and so PFSE works closely with the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the United States Department of Agriculture.
Now, almost 20 years later, partners also include the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Publix Super Markets Charities, Kroger, and NSF International. PFSE has also kept its ties with the federal government.
“We’re working with the FDA who has someone on a fellowship who’s doing an assessment of consumer food safety education,” Feist said. “So we have a lot of developing information that’s going to inform our work.”
The partnership doesn’t deal with policy directly, but in working with an area that is so closely regulated by the government, there is bound to be crossover.
Senators and representatives in Congress have introduced the Safe Food Act of 2015, legislation that proposes a new federal agency that would only work with the regulation of food: the Food Safety Administration.
Feist sees how an agency solely committed to the cause would make sense in some ways. “I think from the standpoint of say, a consumer, the system we have now for who does what in food safety doesn’t really make sense or would seem to be kind of a Frankenstein,” she said.
The proposed legislation is still its beginning phases, having been sent to congressional committees for discussion in late January of this year.
But as politicians and experts push this policy change a few miles down the road, the partnership’s goal stays firm; no matter the governing body, a crucial part of food safety is communication of these standards to the population it affects the most: the consumers.