FDA Releases Biennial Report on Food Emergency Response Network
By Heidi Parsons
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today made available its Second Biennial Report to Congress on the Food Emergency Response Network (FERN), as required by Section 202 (b) of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). The full report is available for download here (PDF, 282KB).
The report's executive summary explains:
This report is intended to satisfy the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) reporting obligation in Section 202(b) of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) concerning the Food Emergency Response Network (FERN).
FERN is an integrated, secure laboratory system for federal, state, and local government agencies engaged in food safety and food defense activities. Currently consisting of 167 federal, state, and local laboratories, FERN is organized to ensure federal and state inter-agency participation and cooperation in the development and operation of the network. The system is jointly operated by the Department of Health and Human Service’s Food and Drug Administration (HHS/FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA/FSIS). These agencies coordinate with numerous partners, including the Rapid Response Teams (managed through FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs), the Pesticide Data Program (managed through USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Laboratory Response Network (LRN).
FERN plays a critical role in food safety and food defense by integrating these food-testing laboratories into a network that is able to detect, identify, respond to, and aid in the recovery from emergencies involving biological, chemical, or radiological contamination of food. FERN also allows for the analytical testing of large numbers of samples in non-emergency situations. FERN’s strengths lie in allowing participating government agencies to compare, share, and coordinate laboratory analysis findings and in strengthening the capacity of state laboratories. FERN Cooperative Agreement Program (CAP) grants supply critical funding to select state member laboratories, increasing national capability and capacity. This support facilitates the ability of these laboratories to serve as first responders during food emergencies and to test large numbers of samples during non-emergency situations.
FERN conducts numerous activities to ensure an integrated and secure laboratory system. It develops, validates, and coordinates laboratory methods to promote consistency nationwide, provides training to laboratory professionals on analytical methods, and conducts targeted surveillance testing for specific events or situations. FERN maintains a storeroom that contains reagents required for the methods used to detect biological, chemical, or radiological contamination of the food supply. The storeroom ensures a consistent supply of materials to FERN laboratories for response to outbreaks, and for participation in surveillance and proficiency testing events. FERN also maintains the Electronic Laboratory Exchange Network (eLEXNET) and the FERN website. eLEXNET acts as the analytical data and official document repository for FERN, while the FERN website contains a public site and a non-public secured site containing a database of laboratory capability and capacity data, as well as serving a registration and tracking function for: (1) training programs, (2) activation exercises and events, and (3) proficiency testing offered by the network.
FERN has proven its ability to respond to large-scale food emergencies and non-emergency situations when surge capacity was necessary. It has been vital in responding to major outbreaks of foodborne disease attributed to many products, including spinach, pet food, and peanut butter. It has also been critical in aiding in the recovery from emergencies, such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the Japanese nuclear reactor failure, thus helping affected economies and increasing consumer confidence in the food supply.
FSMA contains many laboratory-related provisions, and FERN will play a vital role in enabling FDA to achieve its mandate. Specifically, FERN will be instrumental in building domestic capacity (Section 110), continuing to be a major contributor to the Integrated Consortium of Laboratory Networks (ICLN) (Section 203), enhancing foodborne illness surveillance (Section 205), and improving the training of state, local, territorial, and tribal food safety officials (Section 209).
Overall, FERN has grown exponentially since its inception, particularly in the ability of member laboratories to participate in federal surveillance assignments. Beginning with FDA’s and FSIS’s response to the melamine contamination event in 2007, FERN CAP state laboratories have participated in federal assignments (both emergency response and non-emergency surveillance). This analytical participation by FERN state laboratories has facilitated achieving acceptance of state data by FDA and FSIS for regulatory action.
Another example of FERN’s success is the recent progress in the implementation of the ICLN, which is led by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), with FERN as an integral member. Successful implementation milestones for the ICLN include development of the Integrated Response Architecture—defining policies for successful operation of ICLN members in the event of an emergency, inventories of proficiency testing programs and training programs, and multiple readiness exercises.