How Pew Helped Win Passage of Improved Food Safety Laws

  • June 15, 2018
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An independent evaluation highlighted efforts to secure enactment of the most important food safety legislation in seven decades.

Safe Food Project

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The evaluators concluded that Pew’s overall contribution to the new law was significant, highlighting in particular the critical and unique role that the safe food project played during the rulemaking and appropriations processes.

After the passage of a landmark food safety bill—and the subsequent years of creating rules and regulations to implement the law—independent evaluators have praised Pew’s safe food project for its role in promoting passage of the legislation and its contribution to the law’s implementation.

In 2009, Pew created a safe food project to promote passage of legislation to protect American consumers from contaminated food, which federal officials have estimated leads to 48 million illnesses and 3,000 deaths annually. By 2011, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act had become law—marking the most significant overhaul of U.S. food safety regulations since 1938.

After enactment, FDA was charged with writing and adopting regulations to implement the law, and the safe food project continued working to help ensure that this rulemaking process was effective and that FDA received adequate funding for its increased responsibilities.

As it often does with its projects, Pew launched an evaluation in 2016 to examine its contributions to the legislation’s enactment and to the subsequent rulemaking and appropriations processes, understand factors that affected these efforts, and gauge the project’s effectiveness to see what lessons could be learned to help inform the organization’s future work.

Pew’s evaluation unit engaged two outside, independent experts who conducted 40 interviews with project staff and consultants, partners and other stakeholders, and congressional and FDA staff; analyzed public records from federal agencies and other groups; reviewed media coverage; and performed a social network analysis to map relationships between people and organizations to further understand the connections that were important to enactment and implementation of the new law.

In the end, the evaluators concluded that Pew’s overall contribution to the new law was significant, highlighting in particular the critical and unique role that the safe food project played during the rulemaking and appropriations processes.

The evaluators noted that federal food safety reform was almost two decades in the making when Pew launched the safe food project; however, evidence indicated that the reform efforts moved more swiftly with Pew’s involvement. The evaluators cited as key contributions the project staff’s “political savvy” and technical expertise, along with Pew’s robust communications effort and the project team’s coalition-building activities. Pew’s staff members, the evaluators said, had unique expertise among their nonprofit partners, with technical knowledge of the lawmaking process that allowed them to quickly understand the intent of draft legislation and to seek changes to strengthen the bill.

Pew also brought significant resources and expertise to a media campaign, the effectiveness of which the evaluators tested by examining the content of articles about the new law. They found that articles not mentioning Pew were less likely to cite data, more likely to appear in mass media outlets, and much more likely to be health focused. In contrast, articles about the new law where Pew was quoted or mentioned were more likely to appear in political- or agriculture-focused publications in addition to a strong presence in mass media outlets, more likely to include data with citations, and covered not just health but also a wider range of topics such as the economy or politics.

The evaluators concluded that the diversity of media outlets and types of articles in which Pew appeared likely increased the project’s reach and credibility and were an indication of the success of Pew’s efforts to reach a variety of stakeholders.

In addition, Pew trained victims of foodborne illnesses in how to tell their stories and brought them to Washington, D.C., multiple times to meet with members of Congress. All stakeholders interviewed cited this as one of Pew’s greatest contributions to the legislative process because the victims’ stories cut through the politics of the issue.

Throughout the campaign, Pew also served as a convener in a variety of ways. According to the evaluation, Pew’s most significant contribution while Congress was debating the legislation was creation and leadership of the Make Our Food Safe Coalition. While member organizations often participated in other alliances advocating for food safety, Make Our Food Safe brought partners together with the focused mission of supporting passage of the food safety modernization law. Pew staff’s knowledge of the legislative process enabled the coalition to translate its ideas, drawn from the coalition’s subject-matter experts, into a “realistic legislative” approach with a unified message, the evaluators said.

After enactment of the food safety act in 2011, FDA considered regulations to implement the law. The evaluators determined that Pew became more influential at this phase, calling its contributions decisive and noting that many stakeholders reported that they believed effective implementation of the law would not have been achieved without Pew-supported efforts. The evaluators also found that Pew’s sustained presence had the added benefit of bolstering Pew’s credibility in food safety.

During the rulemaking phase, Pew again served as a convener and communicator. Pew led the Collaborative Food Safety Forum, a platform for industry, public interest groups, and trade groups to engage with FDA on issues important to implementing the law. One coalition member told the evaluators that the forum helped them to “sit at the table in a way that we never had before” alongside industry, government agencies, and other food safety experts.

Pew also continued its leadership of Make Our Food Safe, which included coordinating written comments once FDA issued draft rules. Each coalition member submitted its own comments based on outlines developed by the group, which meant that FDA received multiple, consistent comments on each issue rather than one comment signed by many organizations.

While rulemaking was underway, Congress also was considering appropriations for FDA, including funds to support the new law. The safe food project worked to help ensure that FDA’s budget could support implementation and enforcement. As with rulemaking, the evaluators found that Pew played a key role, noting that Pew’s subject matter and regulatory expertise allowed it to serve in an informational role to FDA and congressional appropriations staff. In addition, Pew also ensured that industry, victim advocates, and the nonprofit community continued to call for sufficient funds to implement the law. The evaluators said that Pew’s strategy “significantly enhanced industry engagement and created a strong and diverse voice” for funding.

Pew’s relationships were central to the safe food project’s overall success. When the evaluators conducted a social network analysis to understand the connections between the key stakeholders, they found that Pew was named most often by interviewees as one of the organizations most important to the effort’s success. The Make Our Food Safe Coalition, the Collaborative Food Safety Forum, and the victim advocates were also cited by many as critical to the network. The analysis showed that Pew had close connections to organizations from different sectors, such as nonprofits, government, and industry, and served as an important connector between these different types of organizations. The evaluators concluded that Pew’s ongoing and thoughtful collaboration throughout the whole process was one of its greatest contributions to the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act.

The main takeaway is that the essential components of Pew’s approach to the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, as cited by the evaluators—providing significant resources and highly knowledgeable staff; leading coordination and collaboration among disparate stakeholders; establishing a strong media presence; and providing credibility and a nonpartisan approach—can help future Pew projects build successful campaigns.