The registry is an internet-based portal into which the industry submits reports when there are suspicions an article of food may make people sick. These concerns must be submitted to the F.D.A. within 24 hours by the parties responsible. Its purpose is to provide public health officials with a reliable mechanism to track patterns of food adulteration in an effort to limit the impact of such incidences. The most recent annual report covers the period from September 2013 to September 2014, and it includes a review of food safety patterns that have emerged during the past five years.
Registry data for the past five years show the number of reports submitted trending downward. This finding may suggest manufacturers have established greater control of their processes and improved their ability to track ingredients and products throughout the supply chain.
Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes and undeclared allergens remain the leading food safety issues to be reported since 2009. In the first year of the registry, Salmonella was the leading cause of reports with 37.6% followed by undeclared allergens at 30.1% and Listeria at 14.4%. In 2014, undeclared allergens made up 47% of reports followed by Salmonella at 24.9% and Listeria at 19%.
It is clear undeclared allergens remain a problem, and the issue is even more troubling when one looks at population trends in the United States. Between 1997 and 2011, food allergies among children increased approximately 50%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is unclear what the reason for the increasing number of people suffering from a food allergy, whether it is simply a matter of people being more aware, the implementation of more sophisticated diagnostic and testing tools, or that environmental triggers are increasing incidence.
This is not to imply industry efforts are not under way to address the issue of undeclared allergens. In 2013, the American Bakers Association created a list of references from a variety of baking and food industry sources to aid bakers in the identification and management of potential food allergens. More recently, the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association introduced its Safe Food Matters campaign that is focused on food allergens. Both efforts are designed to give manufacturers guidance to improve their food safety efforts.
That allergens, rather than say Salmonella or Listeria, are among the greatest challenges for food and beverage companies may be construed as good news for the industry. The 2016 Food and Health Survey published in May by the International Food Information Council Foundation shows that consumers view foodborne illness, chemicals in food and pesticide residues as the leading food safety issues today. The presence of allergens ranked near the end of the list.
Food safety challenges never go away, but the industry’s record of accomplishment in meeting those challenges is significant. Whether it is reducing the incidence of E. coli in meat or improving the safety and wholesomeness of fresh products that may not undergo any form of kill step, a focus on continuous improvement has shown progress.
Like other food safety issues, reducing the incidence of undeclared allergens will require cooperation throughout the supply chain. Limiting cross contamination at every stage of production is paramount. Certainly, most welcome would be a scientific breakthrough reducing the incidence of food allergies. Meanwhile, the F.D.A.’s Reportable Food Registry has established a benchmark for food safety progress, and it is up to manufacturers to once again exceed expectations.