Tag Archives: foodborne illness

Martin Easter, Hygiena
In the Food Lab

The New Normal: Pinpointing Unusual Sources of Food Contamination

By Martin Easter, Ph.D.
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Martin Easter, Hygiena

Shiga toxin-producing E. coli in dry flour, and then romaine lettuce. E. coli O104 in fenugreek sprout seeds. Recent announcements of foodborne illness outbreaks have begun involving unusual combinations of bacteria and foods. These out-of-the-ordinary outbreaks and recalls are a small but growing part of the 600 million documented food poisonings that occur worldwide every year according to the World Health Organization. Preventing outbreaks from these new combinations of pathogen and food demand a range of accurate tests that can quickly identify these bacteria. Over the past several years, outbreaks from unusual sources included:

  • E. coli O121 (STEC) in flour: Last summer, at least 29 cases of a E. coli O121 infection were announced in six Canadian provinces. The source arose from uncooked flour, a rare source of such infections because typically flour is baked into final products. Eight people were hospitalized, and public health officials have now included raw, uncooked flour as well as raw batter and dough as a source of this type of infection.
  • E. coli O104:H4 in fenugreek sprouts: One of Europe’s biggest recent outbreaks (affecting more than 4,000 people in Germany in 2011, and killing more than 50 worldwide) was originally thought to be caused by a hemorrhagic (EHEC) E. coli strain that from cucumbers, but was but was later found to be from an enteroaggregative E. coli (EAEC) strain in imported fenugreek seeds—the strain had acquired the genes to produce Shiga toxins.
  • Mycoplasma in New Zealand dairy cows: While not unusual in cattle, the incident reported in August marks the pathogen’s first appearance in cows in New Zealand, a country known for strict standards on agricultural hygiene. The microorganism is not harmful to people, but can drastically impact livestock herds.
  • Listeria monocytogenes in food sources: Listeria monocytogenes causes fewer but more serious incidence of food poisoning due to a higher death rate compared to Salmonella and Campylobacter. Whereas Listeria has been historically associated with dairy and ready to eat cooked meat products, recent outbreaks have been associated with fruit, and the FDA, CDC and USDA are conducting a joint investigation of outbreaks in frozen as well as in fresh produce.
  • Listeria in cantaloupe: In 2011, one of the worst foodborne illnesses recorded in the United States killed 20 and sickened 147, from Listeria monocytogenes that was found in contaminated cantaloupes from a farm in Colorado. The outbreak bloomed when normal background levels of the bacteria grew to deadly concentrations in multiple locations, from transport trucks to a produce washer that was instead designed for potatoes.

The outbreaks underscore the fundamental need to have a robust food safety program. Bacteria can colonize many different locations and the opportunity is created by a change in processing methods and/or consumer use or misuse of products. So robust risk assessment and preventative QA procedures need to be frequently reviewed and supported by appropriate surveillance methods.

Food safety and public health agencies like the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) or the CDC have employed a wide range of detection and identification tests, ranging from pulse field gel electrophoresis (PFGE), traditional cell culture, enzyme immunoassay, and the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). In the case of Germany’s fenugreek-based E. coli outbreak, the CDC and EFSA used all these techniques to verify the source of the contamination.

These tests have certain advantages and disadvantages. Cell culture can be very accurate, but it depends on good technique and usually takes a long time to present results. PFGE provides an accurate DNA fingerprint of a target bacteria, but cannot identify all strains of certain microorganisms. Enzyme immunoassays are precise, but can produce false-positive results in certain circumstances and require microbiological laboratory expertise. PCR is very quick and accurate, but doesn’t preserve an isolate for physicians to test further for pathogenic properties.

Identification of the pathogens behind foodborne contamination is crucial for determining treatment of victims of the outbreak, and helps public health officials decide what tools are necessary to pinpoint the outbreak’s cause and prevent a recurrence. Rapid methods such as the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which can quickly and accurately amplify DNA from a pathogen and make specific detection easier, are powerful tools in our efforts to maintain a safe food supply.

Recently, scientists and a third-party laboratory showed that real-time PCR assays for STEC and E. coli O157:H7 could detect E. coli O121, O26 and O157:H7 in 25-g samples of flour at levels satisfying AOAC method validation requirements. The results of the study demonstrated that real-time PCR could accurately detect stx, eae and the appropriate E. coli serotype (O121, O26 or O157:H7) with no statistical difference from the FDA’s Bacteriological Analytical Manual (BAM) cell culture method.

Agencies like the World Health Organization and CDC have repeatedly stated that historical records of food poisoning represent a very small percentage of true incidents occurring every year worldwide. Many of today’s most common food pathogens, like Listeria monocytogenes, E. coli O157:H7 or Campylobacter jejuni, were unknown 30 years ago. It’s not clear yet if unusual sources of contamination arise from increasing vigilance and food safety testing, or from an increasingly interdependent, globally complex food supply. No matter the reason, food producers, processors, manufacturers, distributors and retailers need to keep their guard up, using the optimum combination of tools to protect the public and fend off food pathogens.

Manik Suri, CEO and co-founder, CoInspect
Retail Food Safety Forum

Rodent Poop, the Olympics and Food Safety Inspections that Work

By Manik Suri
Manik Suri, CEO and co-founder, CoInspect

Another day, another potentially brand damaging story—just ask Little Caesars. On February 7, the health department closed down an Indianapolis-based location because customers found some rodent feces on their pizza—it was clearly a food safety violation, and pretty disgusting. Meanwhile on the other side of the planet, athletes prepared their entire lives to compete in the Olympics. More than 100 people contracted Norovirus around the Olympic sites in Pyeongchang, where the athletes were in danger of getting a violent, contagious stomach illness that would derail their dreams and prohibit them from competing.

We live in a world that eats out, and if we don’t develop new techniques to protect customers in restaurants and food service settings, more people are going to get sick (or worse) from foodborne illnesses. The current food safety process is broken, and needs to be fixed in restaurants nationwide and globally.

At Google, Larry Page has spent two decades managing the speed of a search result for the company’s core service. From 1997 forward, Page has obsessed about the right results as fast as possible. When has Google ever been slow? People use the search engine daily because it always works.

For restaurants to grow and thrive, they need habit formation from fickle consumers. Habits are formed when restaurants deliver on their value proposition slice after slice, burger after burger, and salad after salad. So what is your organization doing to make sure that every meal is extraordinary— not only delicious, but also safe? What are you doing to prevent Norovirus and other foodborne illnesses?

Well, you’re probably not studying the data to create better processes. A 2017 survey of the top 500 restaurant chains found that 85% use paper logs or spreadsheets as their core technology for safety, quality and standards management. Paper logs, line check clipboards or homemade Excel sheets on a laptop are inefficient and ineffective systems to manage something as critical as food safety.

Many restaurants have upgraded their mobile ordering software and relaunched their menus on LED screens, but still make employees use clipboards to conduct food safety line checks and QA audits. This devalues the importance of their food safety operating protocols. Restaurant teams are comprised mostly of millennials and Generation Z— the mobile generations. They expect to be trained, do work and solve problems with their phones. But when their employers train with paper manuals and complete work with paper forms, it’s a huge disconnect for them.

Moreover, how did people at Little Caesars HQ in Detroit have insight into that recent incident in their Indianapolis store? What operating data do they have to examine? What line checks happened in store on the day in question? When was their last third-party food safety audit? What corrective actions were taken? That information would be hard for them to know, if, like the vast majority of restaurant chains, they were not collecting and analyzing data with modern tools.

Upgrading your operating technology so that your people have digital tools is not expensive. Software is much more affordable today because of the software-as-a-service revolution and the extraordinary computing power and proliferation of mobile devices. An emerging ecosystem of safety and software companies is ready to take your facilities into the 21st century. But the C-Suite has to decide it wants to empower its employees to do their best work and commit to having real-time data that is actionable and accurate.

Having mobile ordering software and LED screens for menus is helpful and valuable. But food safety is the most important component of every restaurant (and other food service companies). It is imperative that the food service industry embraces digital solutions to elevate their food safety standards. Without proper food safety standards, any organization could face a crisis like Little Caesars and the Olympics recently experienced. All it takes is one tainted meal to harm your guests—and your brand.

Tim Birmingham, Almond Board of California
In the Food Lab

10 Years, 0 Salmonella Outbreaks

By Tim Birmingham
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Tim Birmingham, Almond Board of California

Almond Board of California (ABC) tackled food safety head-on in the wake of emerging Salmonella concerns in the early 2000s. Conventional wisdom of the time suggested that low-moisture foods like almonds presented a minimal threat, but rather than simply accepting this, ABC engaged in research to better understand the risks. The resulting best practices and groundbreaking mandatory pasteurization program developed by ABC remain the gold standard for other sectors—and drive continued food safety and quality efforts for California Almonds.

In 2017, ABC marked the 10-year anniversary of its mandatory almond pasteurization program – and, most importantly, 10 years free of Salmonella recalls and outbreaks attributed to California Almonds. The almond industry is proud of its unified efforts over the last decade, as well as the food safety record we’ve been able to achieve. However, the work to protect and improve food safety and quality continues. Looking back at our initiatives and successes reminds us of how important this work is and drives our exploration of what’s next.

Understanding and Addressing the Risk

Outbreaks of Salmonella in 2001 and 2004 raised questions and concerns about food safety and quality across industries. For California Almonds, one of the biggest challenges was determining the true level of risk. The easy answer seemed to be that risk should be low, that, based on accepted conventions of the time, pathogens should not be able to grow in almonds and other low-moisture foods. However, ABC investigated further and quickly realized that the pathogen could present a problem. The organization decided to take action and tackle Salmonella and other potential threats.

In collaboration with food safety experts and research partners, ABC began research in 2001 to better understand the prevalence and concentration of contamination in almonds, conducted in tandem with efforts to develop strategies for contamination control. ABC was able to gather enough survey data over the course of several years to show that Salmonella was indeed present in about 1% of the almonds tested at very low concentrations. This data was fed into ABC’s risk assessment work, which enabled identification of appropriate performance criteria for ensuring consumer safety (>4-log reduction).

At the same time, ABC also worked to identify effective processing technologies and the best means of validating them. A technical expert review panel was assembled to help ABC develop a plan, assess research needs, establish standards and create guidelines for the industry. Extensive work went into determining how to validate equipment, including the determination of an appropriate surrogate (non-pathogenic microorganisms) that could be used in lieu of Salmonella in the plant. Concurrently, researchers worked to determine the specific time and temperature combinations needed for a >4-log (and 5-log) reduction for a range of pasteurization processes, including oil roasting, blanching and dry roasting, some steam processes and PPO processing. ABC and partners invested significant time and effort into this research, which culminated in the development of the groundbreaking mandatory pasteurization program for Salmonella reduction, and validation guidelines.

Process Implementation and Ongoing Education

Voluntary compliance with the pasteurization program began in 2004, well in advance of September 2007, when it became mandatory. By that time, pasteurization was established as the industry norm and laying the groundwork for ongoing food quality and safety efforts. Today, ABC has more than 1 billion pounds of validated pasteurization capacity for processes that maintain the raw characteristics of almonds, including steam, moist heat and propylene oxide (PPO). It also has close to 1 billion pounds of validated capacity for processes such as dry roasting, oil roasting and blanching. All reduce the level of potential contamination in almonds without diminishing the product’s quality, nutritional value or sensory qualities (taste and crunch).

ABC also developed a comprehensive round of updates to recommended food safety practices, creating a powerful program with tools that help growers and processors achieve their desired results. These tools include Good Agricultural Practices, Good Manufacturing Practices, HACCP guidelines and Pathogen Environmental Monitoring resources.

In total, ABC has made a $5 million investment in food quality and safety research and validated more than 200 treatment processes, to date. It remains committed to this mission, maintaining close connections with the scientific and regulatory communities to stay current on food safety in the broader context as well as issues specific to California Almonds. All relevant insights and information are disseminated to growers and processors in the form of clear, practical resources, including print publications and digital communications, and workshops and one-on-one field trainings.

What’s Next: Research, Tech and Regulatory Practices

The mandatory pasteurization program is now well established, but it isn’t static – ABC continues to stay on top of the latest methods, regulations and needs impacting California Almonds. Industry investment continues to increase, particularly in processes that maintain the raw characteristics of the product. And, while much information regarding processes and technologies are company-specific and confidential, equipment manufacturers continue evolving and growing their offerings, with a particular focus on maximizing almond quality and throughput.

On the regulatory side, FSMA continues to roll out for growers and processors. ABC helps growers and other stakeholders understand which rules apply, what actions to take to ensure compliance and when specific requirements come into effect for different operations, with FSMA-related resources, Preventative Controls and Produce Safety trainings and timely information available online. Many processors and non-farm huller/shellers started 2018 already meeting FSMA Preventive Control requirements, but the number of impacted orchards and huller/shellers expanded in January as the Produce Safety rule came into effect. At this point, the almond industry and the larger community of food and beverage industries have had time to assess the impact on their stakeholders and take action to ensure FSMA compliance.

FSMA reflects the evolving role of FDA in ensuring food safety. Traditionally, FDA has taken a reactive approach to food safety. The agency now has the authority to investigate farms and facilities regularly to ensure food safety regulations are followed. For the first time, growers and huller/shellers falling under the farm definition may be audited by FDA or FDA-designated agencies. While some growers may choose the exemption option, ABC encourages almond growers to understand the rule’s requirements and develop food safety plans appropriate to their farms. It will be new and uncertain territory for some, but with the FDA’s proactive approach, staying ahead of the curve on food safety and quality will be beneficial.

Currently, almonds are the only tree nut with a mandatory pasteurization program and defined performance criteria accepted by FDA. They have paved the way for validation of other tree nuts, and those industries should also consider implementing appropriate preventive controls for Salmonella. ABC’s work can be considered a road map for other nuts and low-moisture foods, but what works for almonds will not always work for other foods. Research specific to each type of nut needs to be conducted to uncover pathogen prevalence and concentration, as well as pathogen/surrogate resistance to various processes. We will continue to be proactive, as well, evaluating current practices and engaging in research to improve how we understand and control microbial contamination in almonds.

Even with a track record to take pride in, the responsibility and work of food quality and safety never end. We will continue to update and evolve programs, not only as a function of compliance, but to protect the almond customers who support us every day.

Steven Burton, Icicle Technologies
FST Soapbox

Could Blockchain Technology Drive FSVP Compliance?

By Steven Burton
Steven Burton, Icicle Technologies

From farm to fork, food produced today goes through more hands than ever before. A greater number of players in the production of even a single product could increase that the risk for foodborne illness. Not only do companies need to check incoming and outgoing products from their own facilities, but they also need to consider whether products that they are importing from other countries are compliant with local regulations, and whether the products that they are exporting are compliant with the regulations of the destination country.

The current traceability standard of “one step forward, one step back’”is less and less suited for the current global marketplace, and governments are demanding more. Handling all this information is a challenge for food producers of all sizes, around the world.

Taking Traceability Global with FSVP

Needless to say, with 600 million people contracting foodborne illnesses every year, there is a dire need for food traceability and transparency in the food supply chain. If and when something goes wrong, traceability gives oversight agencies greater visibility investigating the root causes of an outbreak to prevent further risk to the public. It also allows companies to minimize the financial impact of a recall if they are able to pinpoint exactly which lot numbers of their products are affected.

In response to the changes in the food industry, in 2011 the USFDA introduced FSMA to implement a more proactive food safety regulatory system. With FSMA came the Foreign Supplier Verification Program (FSVP), which basically extends FSMA regulations to companies supplying food to the United States. All U.S. importers are now required to monitor and manage their foreign suppliers through six steps of hazard analysis, record keeping and more. Given the complexity of the global food supply chain, this is by no means an easy undertaking and it is clear that technology is crucial to achieving this granular level of data management alone. Blockchain technology, however, might be the answer to this problem—and many other related ones.

What is Blockchain Technology?

Evolving from the digital financial world, blockchains are distributed databases that build a growing chain of ordered records, called blocks. This means that any type of information can be stored in a chronological, consistent and secure way; even if multiple users are involved, it is extremely difficult to alter a blockchain.

Since any information on the blockchain is shared with all of its users, they can view any transactions made historically and in real-time. Theoretically, this could allow authorities to pinpoint food problems within minutes, when previously it would take days, potentially saving many lives in the process.

Blockchain in Action in the Food Industry

In 2016, retail giant Walmart started using a pilot version of the technology in its stores, tracking two products using blockchain: A packaged produce item in the United States and pork in China. Walmart announced that the results were “very encouraging,” noting that using blockchain technology could dramatically increase the speed of traceability from days to minutes. In fact, Walmart is now taking it to the next level with a collaboration with one of China’s largest retailers, JD.com, and their suppliers, to bring a higher level of food safety to China.

Other major food suppliers and retailers—Dole, Driscoll’s, Golden State Foods, Kroger, McCormick and Company, McLane Company, Nestlé, Tyson Foods and Unilever—have also signalled their intention to work with IBM to create blockchain-based solutions. Blockchain technology is even being used to track the movement of tuna through the ocean and all the way to the consumer.

At the same time, implementing blockchain technology throughout the industry is a mammoth task. As of now, blockchain technology has a problem with scaling up and can only process a limited number of transactions per second, which would not be sufficient given the needs of the global supply chain. According to Coindesk, each transaction costs about $0.20, and can only store 80 bytes of data, so the bill might become quite hefty as well.

There’s also the fact that the food industry is traditionally slow to adopt new technologies. It’s not just about big players like Walmart—small, medium, and large businesses alike need to come onboard in order for this to become an industry-wide standard.

Can FSVP Unlock the Potential for Blockchain Technology?

There are several reasons why blockchain technology could be the key to tackling the complex challenge that is tracking and verifying foreign suppliers. Blockchains can help increase transparency and communication across the food supply chain, ensuring that there are no gaps and that records are widely available and up to date. When all the information about suppliers and products is easily accessible, the potential to increase the speed of recall response is very high.

Blockchain technology is also suited to FSVP’s goals, specifically. One of the main goals of FSVP and FSMA generally is to tackle the issues of food fraud, intentional adulteration and bioterrorism that are unique problems of our time, in terms of scale if nothing else. Such a modern problem requires modern solutions. Because the blockchain, forming the basis of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, focuses on security, it could mean that blockchains can help close the gaps that would be exploited by food companies employees, or other actors who harbor ill intent.

The reality, however, is that the level of industry-wide coordination—and voluntary transparency—that would be necessary to deliver real benefits is extremely high. The theoretical possibilities are exciting and hugely impactful; the practical reality is more complex. For blockchain to reach its full potential, it has to be universally mandated, which is highly unlikely given the current circumstances. It seems more likely that adoption in this area could be driven by industry organizations and/or government, but unfortunately, the recently proposed budget cuts for the FDA might block progress in the latter area.

Still, with major food suppliers and retailers leading the charge and taking blockchain technology for a test run, the rest of the industry is waiting with bated breath to see what happens next.


FDA Collaborates with AMA on Foodborne Illness Education

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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FDA and the American Medical Association (AMA) have joined forces to release continuing medical education videos for doctors about foodborne illness. FDA and AMA felt that the globalization of the food supply as well as the growth of foodborne pathogens necessitated more medical education and patient counseling on foodborne illness.

“These changes create a need for physicians to guide patients in protecting themselves from foodborne illness, especially those who are among the most vulnerable to serious consequences and who are most likely to be in a physician’s care: the very young whose immune systems are not yet fully developed; individuals whose immune systems are weakened by pregnancy, age, chronic conditions like diabetes, cancer and HIV/AIDS; and persons with organ transplants taking immuno-suppressive medications,” according to an FDA release.

The two videos, “What Physicians Need to Know About Foodborne Illness: Suspect, Identify, Treat, and Report” and “Preventing Foodborne Illness: Talking to Patients About Food Safety” are available on FDA’s Food Safety and Nutrition Resources for Healthcare Professionals webpage.


Four Pathogens Cause Nearly 2 Million Foodborne Illness Cases a Year

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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The CDC estimates that Salmonella, E. coli O157, Listeria monocytogenes and Campylobacter cause 1.9 million cases of foodborne illness in the United States. A report just released from the Interagency Food Safety Analytics Collaboration (IFSAC) analyzed data from more than 1000 foodborne disease outbreaks involving these pathogens from1998 through 2013.

The report found the following:

  • Salmonella illnesses came from a wide variety of foods (more than 75% came from the seven food categories of seeded vegetables, eggs, chicken, other produce, pork, beef and fruit.
  • More than 75% of E.coli O157 illnesses were linked to vegetable row crops, like leaf greens, and beef.
  • More than 75% of Listeria monocytogenes illnesses came from fruits and dairy products.
  • More than 80% of non-dairy Campylobacter illnesses were linked to chicken, other seafood (i.e., shellfish), seeded vegetables, vegetable row crops, and other meat and poultry (i.e., lamb or duck).

A copy of the report, “Foodborne illness source attribution estimates for 2013 for Salmonella, Escherichia coli O157, Listeria monocytogenes, and Campylobacter using multi-year outbreak surveillance data, United States”, is available on the CDC’s website.

Stephen Ostroff, FDA

FDA’s Ostroff Says Foodborne Illness Still Resistant to Change

By Maria Fontanazza
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Stephen Ostroff, FDA

“Everything changes; nothing remains without change.” It’s the Buddha quote that Stephen Ostroff, M.D., FDA deputy commissioner for food and veterinary medicine, used to kick off his plenary presentation at this year’s Food Safety Consortium. Yet “there is one thing that is stubbornly resistant to change,” he commented, and that’s foodborne illness. The incidence of culture-confirmed human infections hasn’t improved, and it can be seen in the number of cases reported through CDC’s FoodNet system. Why?

Stephen Ostroff, FDA
FDA’s Stephen Ostroff, M.D. answers audience questions during a town hall meeting at the 2017 Food Safety Consortium.

Ostroff has a few theories. First, there are much better diagnostics and surveillance systems in place versus 10 or 20 years ago. “Those improvements in finding the cases may be masking improvements that have occurred,” he said. Second, looking at the data from the big picture perspective may mask positive sub-trends. “We are actually doing better,” Ostroff said. “Within the data, there is some good news and some bad news.”

Ostroff also proposed that emerging food safety risks are having an impact on the rates of foodborne illness, including new trends that are altering the food landscape. The global food supply is more diverse than ever. In addition, the change in consumer preferences and eating patterns may lead to gravitation towards higher risk foods that are improperly handled. Other areas of risk include new methods of food delivery (i.e., e-commerce—Ostroff added that within a few years, up to 20% of our food will be delivered to our homes.). The final risk he touched on was new food types, such as synthetic foods (i.e., synthetic meat). “Nobody is quite familiar with the potential hazards associated with those foods,” he said.

FSMA Update

Over the past year, a new administration has come into place, along with a new FDA commissioner. In addition, compliance dates for six out of the seven foundational rules are now in effect (the compliance date for the Intentional Adulteration rule is July 2019). Although the new administration is focused on reducing the regulatory burden, it doesn’t appear to be impacting FSMA requirements. “To date we have no requests to change or delay FSMA requirements,” said Ostroff. “And that’s very good news.”

Third-party certification program. In June FDA launched a website through which organizations could apply to be recognized as an accredited body. Ostroff said the response and interest related to the program has been “overwhelming”, with hundred of entities visiting the agency’s website to learn more.

Voluntary Qualified Importer Program (VQIP). The agency anticipates that the application window will open January 2018 (however, Ostroff hinted that it may be delayed a bit). October 2018 is the projected start of the first benefit period.

FSMA Fixes. “There have been quirky issues that ended up in the FSMA regulations either because of the way FSMA was written by Congress or because of the way the regulations ended up,” said Ostroff, who added that the most problematic “quirk” is the intersection of whether an entity must comply with the Preventive Controls rule or the Produce Safety rule, and it all comes down to the farm definition. As a result, the agency extended compliance dates for a number of situations, one of which involves the agricultural water provision (January 2022 for large farms, January 2023 for small farms, and January 2024 for very small farms). Related to this provision, FDA is looking to reducing the regulatory burden but will keep standards in the lab analytic methods, frequency of testing and determination of water quality.

Training. The FDA has been partnering with many entities around the world to implement FSMA training both for industry and regulators. More than 50,000 people have been trained for the Preventive Controls for Human Food rule and more than 5000 have been trained for the animal food rule.

Inspection. At last year’s Food Safety Consortium, there was a lot of chatter about agency enforcement and inspection. Although Ostroff didn’t touch on enforcement, he provided a few figures on inspection activity for fiscal year 2017:

  • Preventive Controls for Human Food
    • Modernized CGMPs: 720
  • Preventive controls: 165 (46 outside of the United States)
  • Preventive Controls for Animal Food
    • CGMPs: 220
  • Foreign Supplier Verification Program: 285
  • Produce safety rule: 8 (sprouts)
Cara Pahoyo

5 Burning Questions About The Rise In Foodborne Illness

By Cara Pahoyo
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Cara Pahoyo

The food industry has been one of the most celebrated and fastest-growing industries over the last decade or so. Which is no surprise, considering how much food is now being consumed, or posted on Instagram, on a daily basis. Pop-up food carts and hole-in-the-wall food places have been a huge hit too and even inspired a number of Hollywood films about the tough competition and revolutionary marketing tactics that have taken over the food industry (see: Jon Favreau’s Chef and Bradley Cooper’s Burnt). It’s good times, for sure. Well, for the most part, I mean.

When did foodborne illness become a major concern in the US?

Unfortunately, it’s not just the revenue that’s on the rise, because food borne illnesses too are making the headlines as of late. Talk about spoiling (no pun intended) the fun, eh? Well, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, the number of foodborne disease outbreaks resulting from imported foods increased during surveillance years 2005 to 2010.

Where are the numbers coming from?

Dr. L. Hannah Gould, Ph.D., a senior epidemiologist at the CDC, revealed those findings during an oral presentation here at the International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases in 2012. According to the CDC, 39 foodborne disease outbreaks were reported in which the implicated food had been imported into the United States. These outbreaks resulted in 2348 illnesses, 434 hospitalizations and 3 deaths.

How many are affected?

Though foodborne illnesses are often never formally reported, about 48 million Americans, or one in six, get sick each year from food, the CDC estimates, with 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. In fact, in 2014, 19,542 cases of infection were traced from 15% of the US population being surveyed by CDC.

Why is it on the rise?

The culprits? Chances are, you’ve been storing them somewhere inside your establishment: packaged caramel-coated apples, frozen ice cream sandwiches, fresh peaches and nectarines, frozen meet, etc. Not exactly the answers you were expecting, perhaps?

According to experts, the growing popularity of packaged foods such as pre-cut fruit and prepared sandwiches has heightened the risk of spreading foodborne illnesses. Furthermore, they have identified that contamination can occur between preparation and packaging, or in high-tech processing plants, after heating to destroy harmful bacteria and before packaging. Which means, somewhere in the last decade, we lost our way (or something like that).

What can we do to stop foodborne disease from spreading?

The whole fiasco regarding foodborne illness is a public safety concern and must be addressed by everyone. However, while adjusting individually may not be a problem for most of us, the same cannot be said for food places and restaurants. Just imagine the public relations horror for restaurant managers if any of their customers get sick while dining at their place?

Restaurants must be more strict and thorough when addressing food safety concerns. The entire crew must be trained when it comes to food handling and a food safety manager must also take charge in overseeing procedures in the kitchen. In fact, proper storage and disposal must also be adequately done at all times. With those safety measures in play, establishments will be able to showcase their commitment to adhere with local food standards and basic food handling procedures. That’s a step in the right direction, for sure.

Summing up, foodborne illness is definitely a manageable concern and will likely not become a factor that will hinder the overall growth of the food industry. However, the fact that it can be controlled and yet still recurring means that there’s still a fair amount of work needed to be done to improve the industry in other aspects—and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing (at least not yet).

Jordan Anderson, PAR Technology Corp.
FST Soapbox

How the IoT Influences Restaurant Food Safety & Management

By Jordan Anderson
Jordan Anderson, PAR Technology Corp.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is changing the way restaurants do business in 2017. Today, business owners can trace products from point-of-purchase to their doorstep using IoT devices that monitor their location and more importantly, their temperature along the way. These devices are helping keep food safe, streamlining inventory management and giving owners the real-time information they need when managing multiple locations.

Monitoring Food Safety

Nothing gets the attention of a restaurant owner quicker than a foodborne illness outbreak. When it happens, they need to know which products were involved.

IoT devices allow owners to track their food from the time they order to the time it arrives. Even in the back of a tractor-trailer rolling down the highway, owners can check to see the temperature of their food, and can obtain the data trail during its entire journey to see how it was handled, and to ensure safety standards were met.

This data is especially important since the U.S. Federal Government enacted the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) in 2011, which intends to protect public health by reinforcing the U.S. food safety program. Food-based businesses are now required to establish preventative control systems modeled after HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) guidelines and prove their compliance by maintaining at least two-years of documentation.

Traceability measures utilizing IoT efficiently gathers and manages this information, giving owners the peace of mind they need to ensure their food has been handled properly. Not only that, but they have the data to prove it.

Inventory Control and Management

IoT devices help manage the cost of inventory by providing the real-time data that owners need when ordering stock and forecasting needs based on their menu. The data collected by the IoT devices ensures the freshest ingredients are available for dishes, and expired products are disposed of properly.

Tracking inventory from farm-to-fork prevents food waste, deters in-house theft and helps manage the cost of inventory.

Other questions and action items that IoT devices can help manage include:

  • Who placed the order, authorized the purchase, and accepted the delivery?
  • What was ordered and what are the products’ proper temperature ranges?
  • When did the order take place and when did it arrive? When is its expiration date?
  • What is the origin of the product and how did it travel to get to you?

This can help specifically within the restaurant retail market where pick-up and deliveries are becoming more prevalent.

For example: If a customer changes their scheduled pick-up, or drop-off times, retailers must have technology in place that will monitor food safety best practices. Deli, produce and dairy related products could use pre-determined checklists that will verify items were picked correctly, bagged properly and temperatures are checked to FDA regulated standards. While FDA regulations pertaining to FSMA are stricter than ever, it has never been more important for food safety technology to be integrated within the adoption of omnichannel restaurant practices. The likes of digitalized checklist management, temperature control and traceability will have a tremendous impact on continued growth and service within the marketplace.

IoT Devices and Temperature Control

Utilizing the IoT is a critical aspect of quality control. These devices are equipped with a temperature probe, barcode scanner and RFID infrared temperature reader that monitors and tracks your food throughout its journey in the supply chain.

Here’s how it works:

  • The probe, infrared and RFID scanner track and measure the temperature of each product.
  • The IoT software prompts employees to complete checklists, including temperature checks on a regular basis.
  • Each time the data is collected, it is immediately uploaded to a secure cloud and is accessible anytime, from anywhere.
  • While in the cloud, you can customize, store, filter and analyze the information.
  • Users are alerted immediately if any steps are overlooked, like non-observed items, missed checklists and violations, in addition to any corrective actions that address temperature concerns.
  • Should an issue arise, you have the detailed, automated audit trail to prove your company followed proper food safety protocol.

IoT Devices Can Create Modern Dining Experiences

Aside from helping to streamline and manage day-to-day operations, IoT devices can create a unique dining experience for your customers.

For example, if you love seafood – some restaurants are using IoT devices to track where and when seafood is harvested. One example of this kind of initiative is the Boat-to-Plate project funded by a grant from the Mid-Coast Fishermen’s Association. This project developed an app for anglers to upload information regarding their catch. Restaurant owners are using IoT information like this to create unique dining experiences.

IoT and You

How do you plan to use IoT technology in 2017? Integrating IoT practices gives your business the food safety solution needed to help keep food safe, improve supply chain traceability, manage your inventory and gain better control over your bottom-line.

Roslyn Stone

The Changing Landscape of a Foodborne Illness Outbreak Response

By Roslyn Stone, MPH
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Roslyn Stone

Recent high-profile foodborne illness outbreaks appear to have an enduring impact for the entire industry – from when and how health departments respond to alleged illness to how a single tweet wreaks havoc. The bar for when a comprehensive response is required is lower and the extent and nature of the required response has changed.

Here’s what we’ve learned:

Health departments are receiving more complaints from consumers. Although much of this is believed to be related to the high-profile outbreaks, some are a result of health department websites making it easier to report illness. A few years ago, guest illness reporting required calling the health department during business hours, working your way through complex voicemail options until you reached a recorded line to leave a message about your illness. Today, most health departments in large cities and many in smaller counties, have simple on line reporting systems available 24/7. So when someone isn’t feeling well at midnight, and is sure it’s from the last thing they ate, they go online and report the illness.

Health departments are now more often following up on single reports of illness and reports of illness that are inconsistent with most foodborne illness incubation periods. This is creating a large burden for already short-staffed departments, but in response to what the public now expects. In the past, they might have replied to the ill guest and explained that they’d received no other reports, that most foodborne illness has a longer incubation period and refer the illness to personal physicians if a follow up is clinically appropriate. But today, we’re finding many health departments dispatching inspectors for even a single complaint that doesn’t appear consistent with incubation periods for that meal.

There’s increasing pressure on health departments to go public with illness events – even if the illness is no longer ongoing or creating a public health risk. The foodborne illness legal community has made it clear that they believe the public has the right to know about any and every foodborne illness. And some health departments are responding to that pressure – without their being an on-going public health risk; which would have been the trigger in the past.

Guest complaints about illness are occurring more frequently. Every single one of our clients is reporting an on-going uptick in guest reports of illness. We’re not clear if it’s that consumers are more aware of illness, more concerned or more likely to associate it with a restaurant or food service provider. But the entire industry is seeing an increase in guest reports of illness. And every guest assumes it was the last meal they ate.

How you handle any guest complaint about illness is even more critical than it was a few months ago. Here’s why: if you don’t’ respond to the guest quickly and listen with authentic empathy, that guest is far more likely than ever before to tweet about you, write a bad review, post on social media or contact the media. You need to act quickly and it doesn’t matter if it’s a weekend or holiday. Waiting until Monday morning is not an option.

Noro season is year-round now… it’s no longer the winter vomiting disease like it is called in some places. Noro virus outbreaks continued in California (and elsewhere) until after the school year ended. We need to be alert to Noro all of the time.

Fourth of July
Fourth of July was an unusually quiet day in the restaurant, quieter than anticipated (meaning more prep done than needed). The next day, two employees called out sick. A day later, two guests (small parties) called the restaurant reporting illness and later that day, two more larger parties emailed their reports of illness through the corporate website. It took another 24 hours to match these multiple illness reports through three different channels. It didn’t trigger a full-blown response and implementation of the noro sanitizing protocol.
THE FINAL TALLY: 40+ guests reporting sickness and nearly half of the staff.
THE LESSON: Coordination of reporting mechanisms so that you see a potential problem and respond at the earliest point when you can have the greatest impact in minimizing risk.

Employees continue to work sick. There are so many reasons that employees work sick and it has little or nothing to do with paid sick time. They work sick because they’re not very sick, they don’t understand that any gastrointestinal upset may be a sign of foodborne illness, they don’t want to disappoint their manager or they don’t want to let their team down. They’re working sick for altruistic reasons without understanding the potential ramifications. We have a long way to go in educating managers and employees about what “sick” looks like, what can happen from working sick and why we need to work together long term to change this set of behaviors.

Employee Exclusion Policies need to be revisited. Someone is shedding the Noro virus for twenty-four hours prior to become symptomatic and then at very high levels for three days after symptoms end. Sick employees need to be excluded for much longer than they currently are in most restaurants and food service establishments to control Noro outbreaks.

Employee Illness on Days Off are as critical to crisis prevention and response as illness on work days. You need to know if an employee was sick on a scheduled work day or on a day off. As we discussed previously, they were shedding the Noro virus before they got sick and for days after. Your illness response plan needs to include a very robust tool for employee illness reporting – one that is as easy to use seven days a week and raises an alert to management when there are two or more sick employees.

It’s time to redraft and recommunicate the definition of a potential crisis in your organization. In the past, we previously used the following definitions of what defined a potential crisis for a restaurant or foodservice group:

  • Two or more employee illness reports (for same time period and symptoms)
  • Two or more guest complaints (from different parties for same time period)
  • One confirmed employee illness (with a communicable disease)

Your new definition must be broader and reflect the lower trigger points for action. It may include one guest complaint from a large party, illness in a neighboring school, social media buzz about illness from your location and / or a health inspection in response to a guest complaint of alleged illness.

The takeaway: the lessons learned continue to evolve and new ones emerge with each new outbreak. Making sure we identify and share these lessons across the industry and your organization is critical for being prepared to first identify and then quickly respond to the next threat that comes your way.