In the past months I have participated in a number of webinars. During one question and answer session a courageous subscriber commented that despite the Global Food Safety Initiatives (GFSI) and industry record spending on quality and sanitation programs, foodborne illness statistical trends are not too encouraging. Three questions sprang to my mind: What could be contributing to this? Are we benefiting from current food safety programs? Can we ever eliminate foodborne illness outbreaks?
What’s contributing to on-going outbreaks?
Advances made in detecting and tracing foodborne pathogens along with surveillance networks that enable health and regulatory agencies to communicate with one another are, without doubt, the biggest reasons why statistics on foodborne illnesses are discouraging. Behind these reasons are a number of other factors, including:
- Finding pathogens not normally associated with certain foods. For example, it has long been believed that dry foods (popcorn and cereals) and dry food processes have little exposure to Listeria monocytogenes (LM). We now know otherwise.
- Pathogen levels below regulatory thresholds can lead to outbreaks. It has now been shown that prolonged exposure to low levels of pathogens can lead to foodborne illness as was the case in the LM outbreak from Blue Bell ice cream.
- The globalization of the food supply and the diversification of the types of foods now available throughout the year have exposed Canadians to products produced under differing regulatory regimes and with different microbial ecologies.
- The belief that fresh and/or minimally processed foods are better than preserved or processed foods has encouraged consumers to eat raw foods which may harbour pathogens, including cantaloupe, sprouts and fresh salad.
- The mind-numbing complexity of the ingredient supply chain used to make the foods we eat exposes us to an innumerable number of pathogens, some of which we are only now learning about.
- The consumers’ carelessness in storing and preparing foods ranks high among the probable causes of foodborne illness. Sadly, schools, industry and governments are doing little to address this problem.
Are we benefiting from current food safety programs?
Years before GFSI was conceived, I introduced KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell suppliers in Canada to a GFSI-type of program called STAR (Supplier Tracking and Recognition). Like today’s GFSI programs, suppliers paid for the program. The year the program was rolled out (1992), I was persona non-grata and probably cursed more that the resident CFIA inspector of the day. Two years later, suppliers couldn’t say enough “good” about the program. Why the change of heart? STAR opened their eyes to the benefits of disciplined food safety and quality programs, not the least of which was and still is a better bottom line.
To embrace the GFSI schemes and modern regulatory programs of today, suppliers are being forced into the digital world and, in many cases, kicking and screaming all the way. Computer technology was never a core competency in the food industry but it is becoming so. The net benefit is that the enhanced and evolving food safety programs have forced food processors to embrace change and the concept of continuous improvement throughout their operations. As competency grows in developing and managing food safety programs, so will the skill of mining data from these programs to improve food safety, reduce waste and solidify the bottom line.
Another benefit coming out of today’s food safety programs is employee engagement or empowerment, which is part of a company’s food safety culture. Unlike yesteryear, upper management is much more aware of what’s going on in the plant. Risk management is now or soon will be top of mind for upper management.
Can we ever eliminate foodborne illness outbreaks?
The simple answer to this question is “no.” Some of the reasons why we’ll never eliminate foodborne illness outbreaks were mentioned earlier, but there are other reasons including allergens, contamination, fraud and acts of terrorism. Just as we adapt to climate change, so do pathogens which have been adapting and evolving since the dawn of time. Our challenge will be to be one step ahead of them in the never-ending journey toward better food safety.