Innovation needed to lessen impact of food safety events

by Keith Nunes
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For the second time in the span of seven months, the Food and Drug Administration has taken the dramatic step of informing consumers they should limit their consumption of a foodstuff for safety reasons. This past June it was specific types of raw tomatoes, and this January it was products manufactured with peanut butter.

Too often during the past few years this page has addressed the topic of food safety and traceability, and it should have become abundantly clear by now that the industry’s goal must be to limit marketplace damage done during a food safety event. It only takes a few minutes of cursory research to ascertain how these events have damaged the reputation of market segments like bagged spinach, fresh tomatoes and now peanut butter.

The F.D.A. has displayed increasing willingness to use the media during a food safety event to communicate its message. In some cases, unfortunately, the agency’s messaging has been so muddled as to cause companies not directly involved in an incident to become embroiled.

Such was the case with the latest Salmonella Typhimurium food-borne illness outbreak related to peanut butter products manufactured by the Peanut Corporation of America in Lynchburg, Virginia. This situation strikingly illustrates the damage that may be done.

In the wake of a food-borne illness outbreak that began some time between Sept. 14, 2008, and Jan. 8, 2009, the F.D.A. on Jan. 17 encouraged consumers to "postpone eating commercially-prepared or manufactured peanut butter-containing products and institutionally-served peanut butter until further information becomes available about which products may be affected."

What is especially disturbing about the F.D.A. warning is that it was issued a day after the agency announced it had traced one likely source of Salmonella Typhimurium contamination to a plant owned by the P.C.A. The agency’s actions meant that while companies that had purchased product from the P.C.A. were implementing product recalls and warning consumers not to consume these products, other food manufacturers were forced to issue statements at the same time noting they do not buy ingredients from the P.C.A. and that their products should be deemed safe and wholesome.

In the midst of a food safety incident, it is critical consumers receive a simple, clear message. As the P.C.A. situation and all of the confusion surrounding it illustrates, simple and clear was not the order of the day.

Some encouraging signs have appeared that the food industry is working to improve what by any measure is a broken system. While companies do not conduct public health surveillance programs, they may be able to react far more quickly and prevent future failures of communication.

Earlier this month, the Food Marketing Institute announced the launching of its Product Recall Portal, an Internet-based service that allows food manufacturers and their customers to have access to the latest food recall information in a streamlined and efficient fashion.

The portal was designed to standardize industry product recall information between suppliers and customers. The system makes the recall process more efficient by eliminating the need for multiple product recall forms and allows companies to send recall information directly to retailers, wholesalers and food service operators.

Another option to consider includes using data generated by retailer "loyalty" programs to track the purchases consumers make and inform them of any products purchased that have been recalled. Costco Wholesale Corp. used this technique during the latest peanut butter recall.

That the food industry is in the midst of creating a quick and efficient food recall system is promising. Industry managers need to understand that the issue of food safety ought not be competitive. As history has taught, a food-borne illness outbreak has the capacity to hurt everyone, even those with exemplary safety records.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, February 3, 2009, starting on Page 9. Click here to search that archive.

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