Filling the food safety gaps

by Keith Nunes
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CHICAGO — While health and wellness was the dominant theme of the Institute of Food Technologists Annual Meeting and Food Expo, held July 28 to Aug. 1, food safety was also a lively topic of discussion. Recalls related to fresh produce, meat and pet food during the past year have put food manufacturers and the industry’s global supply chain under scrutiny. Gaps in the food safety system have emerged and industry representatives as well as government officials are working to fill them.

Approaching food safety and food defense as one issue rather than two separate considerations is a key to protecting the public, said Dr. David Acheson, assistant commissioner for food protection with the Food and Drug Administration, during the I.F.T.’s Global Food Safety and Quality Conference, held Aug. 1.

"We have to move from reactive to proactive," he said. "There is recognition that we need to change."

With more imported foods, post-September 11 fears of terrorism, and changing farm and manufacturing practices, food safety requires "thinking out of the box," he said.

Colonel John T. Hoffman, a senior research fellow with the National Center for Food Protection and

Defense in Minneapolis, said the food industry is becoming an increasingly complex global network of supply chains, and the need to collaborate with public and private trade partners has never been more pressing.

"We have to be able to do this in a way that facilitates trade, protects our trading partners, and reduces the risk to ourselves and our partners, because the food industry is becoming a fully global system," he said.

Businesses have an increasing array of risk assessment tools that may help, including the new CARVER+Shock system that assesses companies’ vulnerabilities. While such programs offer businesses an essential indicator, Mr. Hoffman said the government is pushing for a system that is more efficient in making data accessible on a broader scale. He noted that a significant action receiving little public notice is the Presidential Executive Order on the Safety of Imports, which prompted interagency review of import safety issues.

"This was an important development," Mr. Hoffman said. "It asks agencies ranging from the U.S.D.A., F.D.A. and Department of Homeland Security to the Commerce Department and Consumer Safety Product Commission to look at our authority and see what we should be doing to improve import safety."

In addition to an increasing amount of imported food ingredients and products entering the country from a variety of international markets, consumers’ expectations of safe food also are changing.

"Consumers demand a lot," Mr. Acheson said. "They are driving the global market and they want fresh, safe food 24 hours a day, 365 days a year."

A head of lettuce that requires at-home washing is off consumers’ wish lists, he said. They want their lettuce shredded, bagged and delivered, and the shift in consumer habits is "adding a new dimension to potential food safety problems."

Mr. Acheson emphasized communication with local agencies is crucial to getting the job done.

"We still have one of the safest food supplies in the world," he said. "Overall, the rate of food borne illness and outbreaks are unchanged," but consumers lack confidence that their food is still not as safe as it can be.

He attributed the dilemma to "getting the word out faster," adding that the news media has been helpful in the effort to remove contaminated products from the shelf but not in "closing the loop in communication" to give the public follow-up coverage on the outcome.

Where the food safety action is

Fresh produce is increasingly responsible for food borne illness outbreaks, and receiving increased focus from people paid to protect public health.

"Produce is where much of the action has occurred," said Michael Doyle, food safety expert with the I.F.T. and director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia.

In the 25 years preceding 1997, there were 190 outbreaks of food borne illness associated with fresh produce. In the five years that followed, that number jumped to 249. The list of sources varied from lettuce, melons and seed sprouts to apple juice, orange juice and tomatoes.

Mr. Doyle predicted produce and other foods from plants will be the dominant vehicles for food borne illnesses, accounting for more than 50% of all illnesses currently estimated at more than 70 million cases a year.

The current trend of cutting fresh produce before selling it raises questions about whether the process has an acceptable safety level, Mr. Doyle said.

He explained that when fresh produce is cut, nutrients begin leaking and more surface area is created that is attractive to harmful bacteria. The leaking juice may interfere with, and sometimes neutralize, disinfectants like chlorinated water that are applied to kill bacteria. If the product isn’t properly refrigerated, then bacteria are more likely to grow.

"This is where I think there’s going to have to be more emphasis," Mr. Doyle said. "We really don’t have a fully effective way to treat fresh-cut fruits and vegetables."

Will Daniels, vice-president at Earthbound Farm, which produced the bagged spinach implicated in one of the fresh produce outbreaks, said the company has instituted controls since that time that he believes are working.

"We came to the conclusion that, more than likely, we received a batch of contaminated raw product into our (processing) facility," Mr. Daniels said.

For that reason, the company now tests lots of leafy greens before they enter the building. They are tested for two strains of E. coli as well as Salmonella, once before they enter the processing facility and once again as they are leaving. Mr. Daniels said the company also tests the seeds, soil and water for pathogens before the growing process begins.

"We don’t have the capacity to test every leaf of lettuce," he said. "What we’re looking for is gross contamination events."

A farm-to-table endeavor

Underscoring the broad efforts required to maintain food safety was Archer Daniels Midland, Decatur, Ill., which invited a delegation of crop growers who are suppliers to the company to the I.F.T. in an effort to further communicate the role they play in ensuring food safety.

"Food safety is of greater concern today than perhaps ever before, and suppliers play a critical role in keeping our food safe," said Mark Metivier, director of sales for ADM’s Specialty Food Ingredients division.

The growers attended a luncheon with executives from ADM and the I.F.T., during which they received a food industry overview and learned more about ADM’s efforts to ensure food quality and safety. In addition, the growers attended a presentation at the ADM booth and learned more about products developed by ADM using their food crops.

Mr. Hoffman noted specific areas of security that need heightened focus in the U.S. include surveillance and supply chain verification and validation.

"(Supply chain verification) is something that is just as important as anything the government can do," he said.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, August 7, 2007, starting on Page 44. Click here to search that archive.

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