Is our Food safe?

The recent outbreak of Escherichia coli in meat shipped by XL Foods has raised food safety to new heights in the public eye.  Despite the significance of this mammoth recall, my experience in food plants over the past 20 years tells me that overall our food is getting safer, and food safety is achieving a higher priority in many food companies.  The problem is that big box stores, and food industry amalgamation means that when a problem occurs, it is no longer a local manufacturer and local stores – it is a continent, or more, with millions of people potentially affected.   The XL Foods recall represents over 2,948,00 pounds of product… perhaps not as much as the 25,000,000 pounds  in 1997 (Hudson Foods) or 21,700,000 pounds (Topps in 2007), but pretty big nevertheless.

According to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, [Rangel JM, Sparling PH, Crowe C, Griffin PM, Swerdlow DL. Epidemiology of Escherichia coli O157:H7 (the most common strain of E.coli) outbreaks, United States, 1982–2002. Emerg Infect Dis [serial on the Internet]. 2004 Apr. Available from] e.coli 0157:H7 causes 73,000 illnesses in the US each year resulting in 61 deaths annually.  From 1982 – 2002, 49 states reported 350 outbreaks of which 52% were foodborne – 41% of which were from ground beef and 21% from produce.

It is important to note that “foodborne” does not necessarily refer the manufacturing channel – it includes restaurants (which may be manufacturer, handling, or restaurant caused).  A small number of ground beef related outbreaks were restaurant “associated”, while a majority of the produce related outbreaks were restaurant “associated”.  NO fast-food related hamburger outbreaks have been reported since 1995, which shows the impact of food safety awareness.  According to most sources, E.coli O157:H7 is killed by “properly” cooking meat, so the industry could say that preparation is everything; nevertheless the U.S.D.A. banned the sale of ground beef contaminated with the O157:H7 strain in 1994.

The number of e.coli outbreaks (or perhaps the reporting of outbreaks) rose from 1993 to 2000, and then started to recede.  The other good news is that the median outbreak size has declined over the entire time.  It would be interesting to know whether that decline is a result of faster reaction time, better containment, or better food safety. The authors of the study attribute the decreased outbreak size to increased reporting of less “clinically severe outbreaks”.  In layman’s language, more reporting of smaller outbreaks is essentially watering down the numbers.

I couldn’t find any empirical studies with statistics after 2002, but a review of media reports seems to indicate that incidence is on the rise again after 2007, but that may just be because of the huge size, or media exposure of recent recalls.

As the food industry goes through a similar transformation in quality as the automotive industry underwent in the eighties, we can hope that food safety continues to improve.  By showing HACCP points, GFSI data, Process Profiles, Test results and other information to operators in real time, reaction time is improved:  actions can be taken that can respond to potential food safety concerns before they materialize.

Nevertheless, I never ceased to be amazed at how many very large food companies are still using paper, or worse.  There is nothing wrong with paper systems, per se, but they certainly do not elevate alarms as quickly or as accurately as automated systems, properly deployed.

Food Safety is as much an attitude as it is a quality system.  Even if systems exist to drive sanitation, traceability, and testing, if concern for food safety is not ingrained into staff, then we can expect to see more outbreaks.  Having said that, the existence of, and investment in, food safety monitoring systems does send a message to employees that food safety is a priority for management.  I remain hopeful that our entire supply chain is getting safer every day.