Faces of Food Safety: Dr. Joanna Zablotsky Kufel
Dr. Joanna Zablotsky Kufel discovered community and public health at Tufts University in Massachusetts. "During that time, I learned to take a global, holistic view of what affects the public's health," she said.
After graduating, Dr. Zablotsky Kufel worked in Massachusetts in public health for a couple of years, and then moved to Baltimore, Md., to attend the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, where she earned her Masters in 2003 and Ph.D. in 2009. "I learned about the importance of the folks who, at a state and local level, inspect restaurants, provide food safety education to consumers and retailers and help to shape food safety policy," said Dr. Zablotsky Kufel. "After learning all about food safety at the state and local level, I still wanted to learn more about food safety at the federal level, where you can influence food safety throughout the entire food chain."
Using Data to Modernize Food Safety
Dr. Zablotsky Kufel began her career as a summer intern with FSIS working for the newly-formed Data Analysis and Integration Group (DAIG) in the Office of Data Integration and Food Protection (ODIFP). Toward the end of her internship, Dr. Zablotsky Kufel was encouraged to consider an FSIS Food Safety Fellow position after she finished her Ph.D. program. Today, she works as Public Health Food Safety Analyst with the DAIG.
|"In the next 5 years, I see CDC, FDA and FSIS working together even more closely to prevent illness...with the ability to react much more rapidly to emerging trends."
Dr. Joanna Zablotsky Kufel
The DAIG conducts and integrates data analyses across FSIS. As an example, it uses information gathered by FSIS inspection program personnel in the field and human illness data collected by partner public health agencies to evaluate FSIS policies and performance to ensure that the agency effectively protects the public from foodborne illness. A key measure of FSIS' performance is the All Illness Measure, which was developed by Dr. Zablotsky Kufel with others in the DAIG. This measure, which is incorporated in the agency's Strategic Plan for 2011-2016, helps FSIS to assess whether the work that FSIS employees perform is having an effect on how often people get sick from food that FSIS regulates.
"We use a public health approach that involves Assurance - Measurement - Refinement (Fig. 1) to ensure the food supply is safe," she explained. "FSIS Inspection Program Personnel work to make sure that regulated product is safe and produced in accordance with FSIS policies ( Assurance). We then use the All Illness Measure to measure FSIS' impact on the public's health and determine whether our policies and activities are having a positive effect ( Performance Measurement). This allows FSIS to evaluate existing policy methodologies and create new and innovative approaches to further prevent foodborne illness ( Policy Development/Refinement)." The cycle, which is described in FSIS' 2011-2016 Strategic Plan, creates a feedback loop that helps FSIS modernize and better address existing and emerging food safety threats.
Fig. 1.-All Illness Measure Feedback Loop.
"It is important that we create policies and programs that are based on data; that are proven to work," she added, "That is a big part of my job; making sure we are using the data we collect as an agency to write policies and design programs that help us prevent people from getting sick."
Dr. Zablotsky Kufel also works with analysts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on the Interagency Food Safety Analytics Collaboration to advance foodborne illness attribution—determining what foods cause human illness. "I really enjoy working with some of the best minds in public health and food safety to figure out how best to use the data we have, identify new sources of data, understand why people get sick and learn how we can prevent outbreaks in the future."
Interpreting the Data
With the DAIG, Dr. Zablotsky Kufel enjoys the level of interaction she has with all facets of FSIS. "I like to think of myself as a data 'interpreter'," she went on to say. "I work with a lot of other program areas to better understand what kinds of data we collect as an agency, what the data means and what it can tell us about how well we are protecting the public."
"I feel fortunate to work with people all over the agency—statisticians, mathematicians, policy analysts, scientists, performance management experts and many more to piece together this important data," remarked Zablotsky Kufel. She is most proud of the work she's done with these experts to produce important information and reports for the public, such as a comprehensive report on FSIS' microbiological and chemical residue sampling programs published on the FSIS website in 2011 and the FSIS Sampling Program Plans for 2012 and 2013.
The analyses performed and reports produced by Dr. Zablotsky Kufel and her colleagues allow FSIS to effectively use science and data to understand foodborne illness and emerging trends, respond to those risks and, finally, ensure that our food safety inspection aligns with the risks.
What does the future hold?
It all hinges on the data and collaboration. "In the next 5 years, I see CDC, FDA and FSIS working together even more closely to prevent illness and having a more real-time understanding of what causes illness—with the ability to react much more rapidly to emerging trends," Dr. Zablotsky Kufel explained.
Recently back at work after the birth of her first child, Dr. Zablotsky Kufel says her commitment to public health is stronger than ever. "Being pregnant and now spending time with my daughter, I think the mission of FSIS has only become clearer for me—protect the public from unsafe food. I am happy to have an active role in achieving that goal."