Looking to the Future

Following Taylor’s example, notice must be served to producers and other food processors that E. coli, Salmonella, and other foodborne pathogens will be classified and treated as adulterants. In addition, the same kind of comprehensive Risk Management System should be established and implemented, along with criminal and civil penalties for violations.

If these best practices were adopted, firms would have to certify that they are in compliance in every aspect of their supply chain. Branding can and should reflect this certification of both the firms and their suppliers. The result would be a “seal of approval,” which should also apply to such issues as the location of produce fields near livestock, what kinds of procedures are employed and the method of irrigation, as well as the type of water used to irrigate.

Second, government needs a food-safety champion like Michael Taylor, an articulate and highly visible spokesperson for food safety. At the same time, we should consolidate responsibility for food safety into one federal-level agency, which would become the authority on best practices, and the point of contact for state and local regulators and health departments.

Third, the food industry itself needs to take more responsibility for quickly and efficiently warning consumers as soon as it is discovered that contaminated food has entered the marketplace. The recent peanut butter scandal in the U.S. is a classic example of the costs of failing to do this. Federal and state governments should assert their authority in this area – especially at the state or regional level, since most outbreaks are regional, not national.

Fourth, we need to develop an E. coli vaccine for cows. The majority of outbreaks linked to fresh vegetables are caused by contamination by cow manure from adjacent or nearby fields.

Fifth, we need to educate the public about the benefits of irradiation of all mass-produced food, including fresh produce. Resistance to this practice seems to be rooted in perception, not science.

Sixth, attention must be paid to the vulnerability of food-supply systems to acts of terrorism. Denial and lack of common sense seem to dominate thinking at all levels – business and federal and state governments.

Seventh, government must use its economic and political leverage to monitor food imports and enforce the same standards enforced on domestic producers. This is a central trade issue that has been neglected.

And finally, there is an urgent need to improve the resources available to victims of foodborne illness. In the US, where the system relies on private medical insurance, out-of-pocket medical costs are rarely reimbursed by insurance – even if victims have coverage. By the time compensation arrives, victims can be mired in debt. And food processors and retailers whose products sicken their customers should minimally provide, as a gesture of goodwill, reimbursement for lost wages. This is not just the ethical response. It’s also good business practice.

Taken together, all of these recommendations will go a long way toward improving the safety and security of our food supply. In the U.S., one of the major food-safety success stories came as a result of the 1993 Jack in the Box outbreak. According to the CDC, E. coli outbreaks linked to tainted meat have declined by 42 percent. The American Meat Institute puts that figure at 80 percent.

Now consumer confidence in fresh produce has been shaken. Because three-quarters of America’s lettuce and spinach comes from California, the problem has hurt an industry, undermining consumer confidence not just in one supplier, but also in an entire sector, most of which continues to produce a healthy and safe product. More companies, ranging from food processors to retailers, are asking for help to regain their “reputational capital” after foodborne disease problems. It remains to be seen whether the brand names of the fast-food chains involved in the recent E. coli or Salmonella outbreaks will fully recover.

Obviously, the goal of the food-service industry should be to produce high quality products that sell well without injuring customers. With this goal in mind, everyone’s interests are better served by the fair and efficient assessments of claims, by health and food-industry officials alike, rather than by the extreme reaction so often seen.

To that end, any business that produces food should be prepared to respond quickly and wisely to any claim of illness caused by its product. There is a natural tendency to react out of anger, but combative responses almost invariably backfire on the industry. Certainly, if a claim of harm is truly bogus, the industry can and should fight it. But when a claim has merit, it is better to treat a customer fairly and learn from mistakes. A calm and reasoned perspective will help the food industry keep its eye on the bottom line.