U.S. food safety regulation needs “major institutional reforms,” including improved data gathering and sharing similar to European systems, to better track E. coli, salmonella and other illness-causing bacteria, according the Produce Safety Project.


Among recommendations, the U.S. should create a Cabinet-level food safety agency and require regulators to compile an annual report summarizing surveillance data on foodborne illnesses and contamination, the group said in a May 10 report.


While U.S. food safety regulation has improved in recent years, “the system is still haphazard, not very well integrated and in a lot of cases, it’s not very timely,” said Jim O’Hara, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Food Safety Project, said in a May 11 phone interview. “We’re not doing it as well as we could.”


The Produce Safety Project, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, has called for more oversight of the industry during recent congressional hearings on food safety legislation. The group has sponsored a recent series of hearings across the country to listen to concerns and suggestions from the industry.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, regulate and oversee various aspects of food safety, including tracking illness outbreaks and product recalls.


The Produce Safety Project, citing a study of food regulation systems in Denmark, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, said the U.S. could learn several lessons from Europe.


Those countries “employ integrated approaches to information management and analysis, including multi-agency databases and food attribution models that explicitly combine and analyze data from human illnesses with data from food and animals,” the report said.


In the U.S., fragmentation of data and analytical capacity among the three regulating agencies “makes it nearly impossible to maintain integrated programs geared toward linking human and food-animal surveillance data,” the report said.


The European Union publishes an integrated annual report that presents data collected from all member countries on foodborne diseases, outbreaks, and pathogen surveillance, according to the Produce Safety Project.


These reports, the group said, combine two key types of data that are rarely presented in the same place: Data on human illnesses… and data on the contamination of food and food animals.


A similar, national report in the U.S. “will actually tell us if we are making progress or not in reducing the burden of foodborne illness,” O’Hara said in a May 10 statement. “It’s a yardstick we don’t have now.”


Representatives with the FDA and USDA didn’t immediately respond to messages.