The politics of food safety often leads to new rules and regulations driven mostly by passion and emotion rather than science and reason.
Our collective survival depends, quite literally, on the food we eat. Indeed, the safety of our food directly impacts our individual health, the well-being of our families, and (if we work in the food industry) the success and longevity of our careers. For this reason, each one of us, no matter what our own individual role, has an interest in making sure that the food we produce is as safe as it can be.
To date, the food industry has done an excellent job. Each year the U.S. food industry proudly distributes approximately 328.5 billion safe meals – and countless more safe snacks – to American consumers. Despite industry’s best efforts, however, the existence of naturally occurring pathogens in many foods remains a real part of our business and lives. Given limitations of science and, in no small part, consumer behavior, no one is immune. Every month, an estimated 4,000,000 Americans develop some type of food-borne illness; another 10,000 individuals will be hospitalized, and nearly 250 will die.
And, no matter how much we care about food safety, we must also recognize that foodborne illnesses will continue to thwart scientists and industry for a very long time. Additionally, given recent and substantial improvements in national foodborne illness outbreak surveillance, more foodborne illnesses are being identified, and more outbreaks are being reported. By extension, more outbreaks are being associated with an increasing number of foods, and more companies are – either directly or indirectly – being affected. Thus, if your company has not yet been associated with an emerging outbreak, faced a catastrophic foodborne illness claim, or announced a voluntary recall, chances are in the future it will.
Such increases in reported outbreaks and recalls, coupled with negative and frenzied media coverage, have also affected public and governmental perceptions of food safety. We now find ourselves operating in a world where the politics of food safety often lead to new rules and regulations driven mostly by passion and emotion rather than science and reason. And, as an increasing number of companies prove they are unable to accomplish the impossible (by guaranteeing, for instance, the removal of all pathogens from all products), we will continue to see more adverse media coverage, more governmental regulation and, by extension, more frustration. Just imagine, for a moment, a dog chasing its own tail.
With that said, however, there are things we can do break this cycle. We can and should embrace a robust food safety culture, closely monitor each of our suppliers, continuously refine our own GMPs, SSOPs and written food safety (or, HACCP) plans, and aggressively test incoming and outgoing product.
And, we need to stay apprised of new legislation and comment with a unified voice on the resulting regulations. Whether such initiatives involve adopting new requirements under the Food Safety Modernization Act, mandating new interventions, regulating additional in-plant validations, or requiring enhanced traceability from feedlot to fork, the ultimate success of industry (and, by extension, the consumer) will depend upon a commitment to stay both informed and actively engaged.
I look forward to working with FoodSafetyTech to provide timely insight on emerging trends in food safety, commenting on new laws and regulations, and offering expert counsel on what we can all do to anticipate new challenges, reduce risk and decrease regulatory exposure.
Ultimately, from an industry perspective, broader knowledge, thoughtful planning and aggressive engagement will be critical when it comes to ensuring – not only another safe meal – but our own collective survival.