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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

Marler’s Ten Top Food Safety Challenges for 2009

Our food supply seems so challenged, that it was hard to narrow it down to only 10.

1. Globalization: More international recalls and outbreaks due to expanding globalalization of the food supply and the challenges of oversight/infrastructure in developing countries. International challenges probably deserve a list of their own, but in the mean time, this wide umbrella includes the possibility of bioterrorism and/or “economic/chemical terrorism” (intentional adulterations with a profit motive, like melamine).

2. Local Food: Outbreaks linked to local food and/or farmer’s markets. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) groups and food co-ops need to demonstrate knowledge and practice of food safety, and be inspected. In addition to produce and meats/fish, prepared items are currently unsupervised in some, but not all locations.

3. Non-O157 STEC (Shiga Toxic producing E. coli) illnesses and outbreaks (both beef and produce): E. coli O157:H7 is listed as an adulterant, is tested for, and is still a terrible problem. E. coli strains that are non-O157 (but are equally as deadly) have not been evaluated or listed, and are not regularly tested for.

4. Animal to Human contamination: More contamination events involving the whole food chain (from animal feed to animals to humans). Whether it’s dioxin in Irish hogs or melamine in Chinese egg-laying hens, it’s clear that what goes into animals eventually goes into us. As the market for animals-as-food grows, so does the price to feed those animals and then the impetus to cut corners.

5. Having to do more with less: Public funding for food safety research, surveillance, and education is down, but the work load (and its importance) continues to grow.

6. 21st Century communication: In addition to improving communication between each other, food safety agencies need to improve communication with consumers. Outbreaks will move through the population with increasing speed, and agencies need to streamline their processes (and embrace social media like twitter and Facebook) in order to keep up.

7. Balancing food protection and environmental health: How to balance on-farm food safety practices with the protection of water quality, the prevention of soil erosion & dust, and the protection of wildlife and their habitats.

8. Zoonotic diseases: The rise of grain prices and starvation in other parts of the world will have many consequences, including the possibility that as people hunt wild animals for food, they may become exposed to new diseases, triggering a zoonotic virus jumping into humans. (A zoonotic virus is one that originates in animals and crosses to humans, like avian influenza.)

9. Consumers and food safety: How do consumers sort through the cacophony of information on food? What’s “safe”? What does “organic” mean anymore? How is it that “USDA inspected and passed” doesn’t guarantee pathogen-free meat? Who does the consumer believe/trust? Included in this category are the raw milk controversy, food irradiation, and even the new labeling laws like COOL (Country Of Origin Label). Will we get closer to farm to fork tracking of all fruits and vegetables this year?

10. Pet food ills: Pet food testing is increasing, so the level of contamination will become more apparent, and we should expect more recalls. Supervision of the pet food industry as a whole needs improvement, with clarity in ingredients and calorie counts.

  • Lynn

    I thought that local food was a good way to avoid some of the questionable food practices of big business and globalization, but this column makes me think twice.
    How is a consumer to know if a producer or retailer is practicing good food safety? And is state or federal oversight the best answer, given a record of failures and corrupting political influence?

  • It’s irresponsible to tell people that prepared food sold at farmers’ markets is currently unsupervised. I run a farmers’ market food concession and I’m required to pay for permits, operate out of a licensed, inspected, commercial kitchen, and submit to regular inspections by the health department. On days when the health department is not actually present, market managers act as their proxies, checking that our operations are compliant.

  • Although there are groups forming with an interest in tracking fruits and vegetables like the PMA (Produce Marketing Association), standardized food supply chain tracking requirements are in the early stages of development, and I don√¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t think 2009 will be a year for marked progress. From an electronic tracking perspective, today√¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s packaging practices could hinder this effort. Tracking at a pallet level is very feasible and is practiced in a growing number of food supply chains today, but unit-level tracking beyond pallets will require packaging changes that are still under development and consideration. Time and money to develop innovative packaging is needed, and this situation has the potential to drive up food costs for the consumer at the worst possible time: when most food providers are being squeezed to lower costs.
    The move toward buying locally could also slow progress with food traceability, and local growers with limited resources will more than likely be the last to embrace electronic traceability to secure the food supply chain. We are starting to see marketing campaigns encouraging consumers to support local food producers. In the past, the benefits to buying locally were pretty simplistic, but with the world’s new focus on sustainability, the reasons to buy locally have expanded to include reduction in supply chain costs for fuel and transportation. Further, it’s also being established that fresh foods lose their nutritional properties when they experience long lead times from farm to fork. As these types of compelling arguments become understood by the public, it’s reasonable to believe that consumers will act and buy locally when possible.
    Monty Mason
    Director of Product Marketing; Supply Chain
    Axway Inc.

  • Dan

    The fact that product is grown or produced locally has no bearing on whether it is safe or not. In all likelihood there is probably the same percentage of growers using unsafe practices in the local foodshed as there are at the farms two thousand miles away.
    However, the product being shipped from across the country is exposed to more opportunities for contamination due to the number of times it is handled, repacked, displayed and mauled at the stores.
    Produce is not inherently safer nor less safe because of where it grows. Food safety violations are caused by poor food handling practices or poor growing practice.. and both of these activities are highly regulated and monitored. More government oversight and regulations will get us nowhere in our quest for safer food.
    I will guarantee you that if we ever get to total electronic tracking, people will still get sick from food, and the reason will be because a producer or handler has cut corners or did not follow the regulations.
    If you look behind the counter at grocery stores, convenience stores, smoothie shops, juice bars or in the kitchens at most restaurants, there are as many “un-supervised” food handlers there as are at a Farmers Market, so to paint the entire “eat local” movement as less safe than the other option is ludicrous.
    The location where the product was grown is not the inherent problem, everyone in the food handling chain must be cognizant of the risks and must be diligent in their efforts to avoid contamination….
    And oh, by the way, electronic tracking via tags, barcodes, RFID and GTIN numbers in their current iteration are a gigantic waste of money. With the gestation period of food borne illnesses, what consumer will ever keep a bag, barcode, plu sticker or GTIN number filed away to see if they get sick from it?

  • pat St-Arnaud

    Greed should be number one.
    It does not matter if you are a large corporation or a small business or farm owner, greed will make you cut corner, to make more money to buy that new plant or plasma TV.
    It will make you hire untrained, barely supervised worker and squeeze every ounce of productivity out of them without health considerations, and put melamine in your product because it’s cheaper than quality.
    It will make you lobby against USDA inspection and for self-regulation, then use the very minimal standards in you plants you can get away with.
    I think China’s response to those who would endanger the public from greed is appropriate – at the very least it should have a dissuasive effect. But what are WE doing about it?

  • “All the Above” comments just reinforce my personal responsibility to organic farming and all of humanity who consume vegetation on this planet.
    “Organic” is the only option left that I can trust if I don’t grow it myself!

  • Nada Day

    I am the copyright holder and developer of a four hour course in fresh produce handling that is accredited in Australia the course offers training to all fresh produce handlers who then receive nationally recognised qualification that is portable and recognised in any part of the country.
    Advantages :
    All harvest workers have standardised training to AQTF standards on the safest way to handle fresh produce to minimise risk.
    Each person has an orange card with their name and a unique identifier on it.
    Farmers can know exactly who is picking which area each day. so trace back is simply a matter of completing a simple form.
    the unique identifiers are kept for seven years so even retrospective trace back is easy.
    Bio -security: our food and water source are serious targets for those who would wish us harm and yet how well do we monitor who works on farms? access to chemicals fertilizers our food and water source should be monitored. in my opinion.
    The freshstart course will be launched this month and will be available to all harvest workers in Australia.
    I would be happy to talk to anyone interested in using the course in the U.S as it is available online and in a DIY kit.
    this is a cheap effective method of doing the best you can to ensure safe produce while minimising the risk of paying the price for not doing enough.
    I am just one person with a small RTO who has taken on the project and we are pushing it forward ourselves. it has taken more than two years to get it to this stage and i hope that the Australian Government will look at making it mandatory because i am passionate about food safety and fresh produce.
    Would love to hear from anyone who would like more information about ‘freshstart’. my email is nada06@aapt.net.au Thanks for the opportunity to discuss this Mr Maler and I would like to talk to you about implementing similar practices in the U.S.
    Regards
    Nada Day

  • maxine brand

    Please include Canada in your informative statistics on pet and human food posioning events. Thank you. maxien Brand

  • FoodSciMom

    It is irresponsible to think that “organic” marked foods are less apt to contain contaminants than those sold under a regular label. As a matter of fact, organic food lines can only be cleaned by organic means, which is by definition, not as clean as you would probably keep your kitchen counter (i.e. no bleaching or chemicals on the food lines). Furthermore, purchasing products at a farmer’s market, with or without inspection from the USDA or FDA, may not be a “cleaner” choice either.
    The problem we see with companies such as Peanut Corporation of America comes when there is no personal responsibility within companies to do the best job possible to assure the safety of the finished product. For God’s sake, these people didn’t even have a quality manager on the payroll. No one there knew the first thing about safe food practices. They also didn’t care one bit that there were 30+ decaying rodents around the perimeter. They had to know that was a food hazard, but they did nothing about it.
    I also think it was irresponsible that Nestle did their own independent audit of PCA and not report its findings to the FDA, health officials, or other companies they thought may be using products from PCA. They are getting a lot of praise for performing their own audits, but why did they not share that information with other food companies and the governement? Obviously they didn’t care as much as they’d have others believe.

  • I think awareness is a much more effective tool in ensuring food safety. In a developing country, vegetables were being grown in a field that was being provided water which was being contaminated from effluent of tanneries! This dangerous effluent was being discharged from these tanneries.
    After a lot of pursuation, I got a drain constructed. Now, that effluent started going to a pond and started accumulating over there. The buffaloes in the area started consuming that contaminated water and the inhabitants of the area were consuming the milk of these buffaloes. The poultry also started consuming that water whose eggs and meat was bein taken by the people of the area. So, this vicious circle never seemed to be ending! The best solution was re-cycling. So, again, awareness came in i.e., awareness to the authorities.
    Azfar A Khan,
    Consultant Env Mgmt System,
    E-mail: azfar44@hotmail.com

  • Thanks, I have read the Top Ten food safety Challenges for 2009. I liked following three most
    5. Having to do more with less: Public funding for food safety research, surveillance, and education is down, but the work load (and its importance) continues to grow.
    6. 21st Century communication: In addition to improving communication between each other, food safety agencies need to improve communication with consumers. Outbreaks will move through the population with increasing speed, and agencies need to streamline their processes (and embrace social media like twitter and Facebook) in order to keep up.
    7. Balancing food protection and environmental health: How to balance on-farm food safety practices with the protection of water quality, the prevention of soil erosion & dust, and the protection of wildlife and their habitats.

  • Peter

    The comments above are sponsored by major corporation representatives. Locally produced food is superior to food shipped thousands of miles destroying our planet in the process.

  • Local food is not necessarily safer than industrial food, correct.
    Especially now that people are jumping into the movement for a quick buck. While organic certification is a joke, you also can’t blindly trust the farmer telling you he has sound ecological growing practices. Transparency is the answer. Open farms, farmer-consumer relationships and handshakes are the solution to all of our food security questions.
    Contamination from manure can always bring e. coli into the equation. However, good ecological growing practices produce soil and leaf surfaces full of bacteria and fungi. These microbes consume or compete with pathogenic microbes and reduce their survival rate to the consumer.
    Sterilization is not the answer. Microbes exist everywhere and the harmful ones will always be the first to move in as soon as contamination occurs. A healthy microbial ecology will reduce contamination related sickness in the way that nature has always done it.