Food Safety | June 2012 | By Carolyn Surh

The Evolution of Food Safety

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An FDA consumer safety officer works at the border crossing testing food safety.
An FDA consumer safety officer working at the border crossing prepares tomato samples for testing by the FDA mobile laboratory unit. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration
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“When you look at most pressing concerns in [quick service], you really have to look at those things that are risk factors that directly lead to food-borne illness,” says Jennifer Tong, director of food safety at NSF International, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving public health. “They want to have assurances through the chain that their suppliers are doing the right thing in regards to food safety. That’s really going to entail them understanding and knowing their supply chain.”

For restaurants serving fresh, raw produce, ensuring that growers and processors are taking every precaution to avoid contamination can be difficult.

“On the supply side, one of the biggest risks today is produce,” Theno says. “There are many people who are trying to do a better job, so I don’t want to demean the [produce] industry, but I can tell you there are a lot of people who are not doing as well as others.”

One of the most challenging aspects of food-borne illness is how difficult it can be to track the contamination source. What’s more, scientists can only identify pathogens that cause 20 percent of food-borne illnesses. One of the biggest food-borne pathogen threats, Escherichia coli 0157:H7, commonly referred to as E. coli 0157, was identified as a food-borne pathogen only 20 years ago and was known previously as a micro-organism found in cattle. Tracing its path into human food has proven evasive.

“Pathogens like E. coli 0157 are comparatively new in humans. The first case was recorded in 1980, so in the beginning it was detected mostly in cattle,” Lu says. “It’s most likely in wild animals, too. It’s difficult to keep wild animals out of the growing field; that may have something to do with it.”

If soil in the growing field is contaminated, for example, growers and processors who handle the produce have wide potential to spread the contaminant if equipment isn’t properly cleaned and produce isn’t washed thoroughly. Experts suspect several recent outbreaks have originated in stages before the produce arrived at restaurants: in the growing field, from cross-contamination on processing equipment, even exposure to contaminated ice during the shipping process.

The results can be grave. Last year, the second-most deadly food-borne illness outbreak in the U.S. since the CDC began tracking data was attributed to listeria-tainted cantaloupe sold pre-cut in fruit trays and fruit salad. Jalapeño peppers and possibly tomatoes were the culprits in a 2008 salmonella outbreak that sickened hundreds of people across 43 states. In 2003, scallions served chopped and raw in salsa at a restaurant chain caused the worst hepatitis A outbreak documented in the U.S. Last year, an E. coli outbreak related to raw bean sprouts grown in Germany sickened thousands across multiple countries and resulted in 50 deaths.

Recent statistics on food-borne illness in the U.S. shows that progress over the years has been mixed. While there have been significant decreases in major pathogen outbreaks such as E. coli 0157 and listeria since 1996, salmonella infections have increased slightly, according to FoodNet, a multi-agency program that gathers food-borne illness data.

Even the simplest food-safety practices continue to challenge restaurants where turnover rates are high and the staff tends to be young and inexperienced. Safety protocols and governmental regulations provide a framework by which to train employees, but the key is strong leadership, Theno says.

“How often is an inspector in a facility?” Theno asks. “Regulations give you a minimum set of standards, but if you’re going to make food safety happen, it’s a leadership thing. I don’t think we need more laws, we need more leaders.”

Indeed, strong management is a constant that can be applied over the vast number of localities that monitor food safety. Throughout the country, there are approximately 3,500 state and local health jurisdictions. Subject to guidelines that are adopted differently from county to county, foodservice operators know just how complex multi-state compliance can be.

With so much variance from location to location, on top of daily pressures like labor and supply chain, Theno has seen the best results in organizations where management places food safety at the top of the list.

“Where it’s done exceptionally well it’s because the leadership really owns these matters—they walk the talk, they live it,” Theno says. “Every day they ask questions that show their team that food safety is as important if not more important than everything else they do every day in the restaurant. When that leadership philosophy is present, I find their restaurants are in much better shape.”

As seen with industry-wide sales lost after contaminated spinach and eggs from specific sources caused outbreaks, financial repercussions from food-borne illness can be widespread and indiscriminate. While food growers or processors were at fault in some cases, restaurants are the customer-facing element in the chain whose brand will be linked to sickened customers.

One example is Taco Bell, where sales fell an estimated 20 percent after the 2006 E. coli outbreak from tainted lettuce that sickened 71 people across five states. Parent company Yum! Brands suffered a downgrade of its stock by industry analysts shortly afterward.

Perhaps most notorious has been the shuttering of all 65 Chi-Chi’s Mexican restaurant locations the year following a hepatitis A outbreak that sickened hundreds and led to three deaths. The outbreak was traced to green onions grown in Mexico that had been contaminated during the growing or packing process.

Food safety, Theno says, cannot be emphasized enough. He considers it to be the most critical operational element in the business. “There’s one element that if you’re not doing it right, your whole business can go away tomorrow,” he says. “And I know with great certainty that that can happen.”

There are more changes on the horizon. Regulations being drafted under the Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law in early 2011, include a mandate for produce safety, which the agency will finalize this year.

As with any sweeping legislation, however, it’s too early to predict how transformative the new regulations will be.

“When speaking specifically about the Food Safety Modernization Act, that definitely is just too early to tell. We’re still waiting and hopeful that it will have a direct impact,” Tong says.