Tag Archives: foodborne illness

Randy Fields, Repositrak
FST Soapbox

Insurance and Food Safety: A Primer for the C-Suite

By Randy Fields
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Randy Fields, Repositrak

Food safety risk is now a greater concern for retailers and manufacturers than ever before due to the combination of FSMA and increased consumer concerns. Supply chains are more complex, product recalls and foodborne illness outbreaks occur more frequently, and the new normal is prevention rather than inspection. Wrap that all up with advanced technology and the 24-hour news cycle, and consumers are acutely becoming aware of food safety issues as soon as they occur.

What this means for all of the participants in the global food supply chain is that you should review your insurance policies and look for gaps in coverage where you may be exposed. While no two recalls are the same, and foodborne illness outbreaks impact affected companies in different ways, certain trends have emerged to help better understand the claim friction points that frustrate companies after a food safety event.

Two of the most important tools to mitigate food safety risk are contaminated product insurance (CPI) and product recall insurance (PRI). Inventory, cost of refunds and recall expenses are three of the largest recall loss items suffered by companies. Combined, they are the largest percentage of loss (nearly 50%) and represent a substantial portion of uncovered loss for any insured under CPI/PRI. The sole basis for this frustrating friction point is simple—lack of traceability.

CPI/PRI only covers losses that result directly from a covered insured event. If a company is unable to support its claim that costs are directly related to the event and the resulting recall or outbreak, it will not be reimbursed under a CPI/PRI policy. And, as such, loss amounts are generally not covered under general liability and property policies either, so a significant portion of a company’s loss remains uncovered.

Here’s a recent claim example to illustrate the impact on a company that lacked the capability to properly trace its products. An insured purchased a CPI policy with a $2 million Accidental Contamination limit. An event occurred involving a contaminated food product, which triggered that coverage. During the review, the insured provided spreadsheets supporting nearly $1.1 million in customer credits for product shipped and either returned by the customer for disposal or destroyed by the customer. Unfortunately, based on a review of the information provided in support of the spreadsheets, the accountants found that the insured was unable to properly trace and support its claim that the returned or destroyed product was affected by the insured event recall. Under these circumstances, the accountants were only able to confirm $187,000 in losses. The result: The company was unable to recover nearly $1 million in potentially covered losses because it lacked traceability. These outcomes are not uncommon.

The insurance industry understands food safety risks and the need to evolve products to meet the needs of food industry clients. Companies can’t totally mitigate all food safety issues, but understanding the risks is the best way for a business to protect itself. Insurance industry leaders are working in partnership with their food sector clients to ensure that risks are better understood and that the client has appropriate systems in place to help mitigate them.

Insurance companies are tailoring their products to ensure that policies are developed to address the recall risks caused by regulatory changes and help companies ensure compliance as well as an understanding of the regulatory requirements. However, food companies may increasingly find coverage and limits adjusted lower for government recalls in high-risk environments. Insurers are also a key player in the promotion of food safety standards, and some offer favorable rates to food industry clients who are graded top tier for safety.

Some insurers go a step further, allowing clients to allocate a portion of their premium for pre-incident risk-analysis and crisis-response services. Top insurers provide clients access to a network of crisis management specialists as part of their food safety coverage. They should offer risk management guidance in areas such as food safety risk, regulatory compliance, supply chain management and product security.

One of the most critical risk mitigation tactics is developing long-term relationships with trusted, but verified, suppliers, distributors and other key partners. It is also important for companies to undertake regular site visits to their manufacturers or suppliers, and commission third-party audits to maintain reliability and transparency.

Not if, but when a product recall occurs, a company faces a myriad of risks. As with food safety, preventive planning can pay off significantly. By proactively working with insurers, trading partners and technology vendors you can reduce if not eliminate the negative impact of the event.

International Brotherhood of Teamsters

Supplier Accountability Focus of Latest Protest Against Chipotle

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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International Brotherhood of Teamsters

The labor union International Brotherhood of Teamsters has been holding nationwide protests at Chipotle locations this month, taking issue with one of the restaurant chain’s suppliers. The supplier at the focus of the demonstrations is California-based produce company Taylor Farms, which supplies tomatoes and peppers to Chipotle, according to Teamsters.

“Over the past five years, Taylor Farms has had more than 20 food recalls for problems such as Listeria, Salmonella and E. coli. In November 2015, Taylor Farms products containing celery and sold at Costco and other retail outlets were recalled for possible E. coli 0157:H7 contamination,” according to a Teamster news release. “At Taylor Farms’ plant in Tracy, Calif., the company has also committed safety and health violations and violations of laws that protect workers’ rights. Recently, the company settled extensive labor rights violations that involved payments of $267,000 to illegally terminated workers and a required posting in which the company promises to never again violate a long list of employee rights.”

The Teamsters protested at 12 Chipotle locations across the country, following 30 previous protests at Chipotle over the past several months.

Teamster Vice President Rome Aloise points the finger at Chipotle for allowing Taylor Farms to “have a total disregard for consumers’ and workers’ health and safety, as well as workers’ rights,” he said. “Chipotle claims to serve ‘Food With Integrity’, but where’s the integrity when it turns a blind eye to its supplier’s behavior? Chipotle must not cut and run – which would hurt Taylor Farms workers – it must carry out its social responsibility and demand Taylor Farms treat workers fairly and with respect.”

Taylor Farms has not released a statement addressing the protests.

Deirdre Schlunegger, CEO of STOP Foodborne Illness
Food Safety Culture Club

Changes in Culture

By Deirdre Schlunegger
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Deirdre Schlunegger, CEO of STOP Foodborne Illness

The vast majority of foodborne illnesses in the United States results from either a management system failure or human error. This supports our belief that all foodborne illnesses are preventable. With the introduction of FSMA, prevention has become a significant focus in the battle to eliminate foodborne illness.

STOP Foodborne Illness is collaborating with Intrinsic Leadership, LLC to offer a Food Safety Leadership program. The primary objective of this program is to equip leaders with the knowledge, skills and abilities to develop and sustain a culture of prevention relative to food safety.

Successful prevention requires more than just the introduction of new knowledge and skills for workers. Success requires the consistent and ongoing application of those skills.

We know that training can provide knowledge and skill. However, the most significant predictor of long-term success is the extent to which frontline managers actively support behavioral changes within the employee base. Experience shows that transforming an organization to produce superior results is much more than training programs, process improvement or new technology. While each of these elements are important, sustainable improvement occurs when we are able to shift the way people think about the business in a way that drives them to consistently act different then they did in the past. The role of leadership is to:

  • Frame the business opportunity in a way that inspires employees to seek a better outcome
  • Relentlessly pursue management system improvement
  • Represent, support and encourage a culture that aligns with improvement opportunities

Stories are powerful reminders and provide the “why” behind food safety.  Below are two such stories.

Raw Milk – E. coli 0157:H7

It is the stories that create the urgency behind the importance of food safety.  Christopher’s story is heart breaking—yet, he was one of the lucky ones, as he recovered from his illness.

Cheese – Listeria

Allison survived as well but had a rough entry into the world, as she was diagnosed with Listeriosis shortly after birth.

 

Shawn K. Stevens, Food Industry Counsel
Food Safety Attorney

The Criminal Offensive Begins

By Shawn K. Stevens
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Shawn K. Stevens, Food Industry Counsel

FDA intends to pursue criminal investigations against any food company executives or quality assurance (QA) managers involved in cases in which a link is made between a positive sample collected by the agency from a food facility or product and a foodborne illness.

In fact, the agency and the U.S. Department of Justice just announced that they will be working together to aggressively enforce food safety laws, including the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. In prepared remarks at a food safety conference last week, Benjamin C. Mizer, principal deputy assistant attorney, indicated that criminal prosecution of food companies is a priority moving forward. “When it comes to food safety, we have to rely on the companies who manufacture and distribute food to ensure that the food we buy is safe,” Mizer stated in his remarks. “That is why food safety is a priority for the Justice Department.  Our role in protecting consumer safety is at its apex when consumers can least protect themselves.”

In addition, the FDA is exercising nearly limitless authority to access company records during an inspection and investigation—and in many cases doing so without a warrant.

The Park Doctrine. In 1975, the Park Doctrine solidified FDA’s authority to criminally charge corporate executives and high-level managers. The Supreme Court upheld the conviction of the president of a major grocery chain who was found to be criminally liable for unsanitary conditions existing in a company distribution center, notwithstanding the argument that he had delegated the responsibility for maintaining the cleanliness of the site to his subordinates. The Supreme Court concluded that if a company ships adulterated food, the management of that company can be charged, even if they have no direct knowledge or intent. Under this standard, a food industry executive or QA manager can be sentenced to prison if he or she is aware of a circumstance or condition within his or her facility that could lead to a foodborne illness and fails to take action to correct it. If charged with this type of misdemeanor, the executive could be sentenced to up to a year in prison and a $250,000 fine for each count. On a case-by-case basis, FDA will consider the individual’s position within the company, his or her relationship to the violation, and whether in fact he or she was in a position (or had the authority) to correct the violation. The government is demonstrating that it intends to use criminal sanctions to create a deterrent and compel compliance.

Peanut Corporation of America (PCA): Salmonella outbreak (2008). PCA owner Stewart Parnell was sentenced to 28 years in prison for knowingly selling peanut products contaminated with Salmonella. His brother, a peanut broker, was sentenced to 20 years, and Parnell’s QA manager was sentenced to five years.

Quality Egg: Salmonella outbreak (2010). Quality Egg distributed products linked to a Salmonella outbreak that sickened more than 1,000 people. Company executives did not know that their products were sickening consumers but were nevertheless cited by FDA for failing to control Salmonella in the growing and processing  environment.  When the outbreak was over, FDA conducted a criminal investigation, and company executives were sentenced to three months in jail and slapped with significant fines for food safety violations.

Learn new and innovative approaches to Listeria detection & control at Food Safety Tech’s workshop | May 31–June 1, 2016 | St. Paul, MN | LEARN MOREJensen Farms: Listeria monocytogenes (2011). The company distributed cantaloupe contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes and, over a two-month period, the tainted product sickened nearly 150 people and killed more than 30. Company owners were unaware of product contamination, but federal prosecutors brought criminal charges against the company regardless, arguing that Jensen Farms failed to take appropriate steps to reduce Listeria contamination in its facility. Company owners were sentenced to five years’ probation, six months’ home detention, 100 hours of community service, and assessed individual fines of $150,000.

ConAgra: Salmonella (2006­–2007). In 2014 FDA urged criminal charges be brought against ConAgra for distributing Salmonella-contaminated peanut butter, which sickened about 700 people, between 2006 and 2007. The company pled guilty to the charges and paid more than $11 million infines.

On May 2, 2014 FDA announced its intent to pursue “[c]riminal prosecution for falsifying records, lying to FDA, knowingly putting consumers at risk, or in other appropriate cases.”

Blue Bell: Listeria monocytogenes (2010–2015). In 2015, Blue Bell Creameries was linked to an outbreak in which FDA connected positive samples from those taken at retail and those taken at production facilities to seven case patients in the CDC database who carried the same strain of Listeria. Last year the agency urged the company to recall all of its products. What’s most concerning about the investigation is the fact that the first people who became sick fell ill more than five years ago (January 2010); two more illnesses were recorded in 2011, followed by one in 2012, and three in 2014. The final illness was reported January 2015.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) confirmed that FDA and the DOJ are making criminal sanctions “a priority” when companies “fail to live up to their obligations to protect the safety of the food that all of us eat.” The DOJ, working with FDA, has served federal grand jury subpoenas to Blue Bell, and is likely scanning food company records and executive emails to justify any criminal charges. If criminal charges are indeed brought against Blue Bell, FDA will likely argue that the company was periodically finding LM in its facilities over the past five years and failed to take sufficient action to correct the condition, which (as proven by the seven matching cases in PulseNet ),  resulted in human illness. Although this seems like an extreme approach, given the ubiquitous nature of LM, it is the approach the agency is aggressively pursuing.

Chipotle Mexican Grill: Norovirus (2015). For several months last year, Chipotle was unable to contain and manage numerous foodborne illness outbreaks. In a public filing the national restaurant chain confirmed that it received a federal grand jury subpoena from the DOJ in connection with a norovirus outbreak that occurred at a location in which more than 200 customers became ill.

According to reports, Chipotle executives became aware that numerous employees had reported being sick in August 2015, yet they waited a few days before informing the local health department of the illnesses and closing the restaurant. In turn, it appears that FDA and the DOJ initiated a criminal investigation and served the grand jury subpoenas in order to gain access to corporate emails and determine whether company executives waited “too long” after learning about the illnesses to take action. On January 28, officials from Chipotle confirmed that the restaurant chain was served with a subpoena that broadened the scope of the initial criminal investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Central District of California. This subpoena requires Chipotle to produce documents and information related to company-wide food safety matters dating back to January 1, 2013, and supersedes the subpoena served in December 2015 that was limited to a restaurant in Simi Valley, California. Although FDA is trying to uncover how the recent outbreaks occurred, the agency is also engaging in a broader “fishing expedition” to determine whether there is further justification to bring criminal sanctions as a result of any of the company’s broader food safety conduct.

Multiple Non-public Cases

The DOJ, in cooperation with FDA, is currently pursuing criminal investigations against many other companies connected to other reported illnesses. As these are ongoing investigations, the underlying facts cannot be disclosed publicly. However, the most important lesson to be learned is that food companies must be prepared to better control pathogens in their environment in order to protect themselves from criminal prosecutions. My subsequent column will discuss these strategies.

Department of Justice seal

Watch Out, DOJ and FDA Prioritizing Prosecution

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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Department of Justice seal

In remarks made at the Consumer Federation of America’s annual food policy conference this week, Benjamin C. Mizer, principal deputy assistant attorney general, stated that the federal government has made consumer safety a top priority. With this announcement comes an announced intention on the part of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to use “various enforcement tools that we have at our disposal,” and maintain a stronger partnership with FDA to go after companies that “introduce adulterated foods into interstate commerce”.

“In deciding whether to use our civil or our criminal enforcement tools, the Justice Department follows the same set of guidelines that apply to every criminal prosecution,” said Mizer. “Among other things, prosecutors evaluate the nature and seriousness of the offense, the deterrent effect of the prosecution and the culpability of the individuals or entities involved.” Criminal charges brought against a food company can be either misdemeanor or felony, and Mizer emphasized that misdemeanor violations can still result in “serious penalties”. He cited a case in which the owner and CEO of an egg production company in Iowa pled guilty to a misdemeanor and received three months in jail and one year supervised release, and was slapped with a $100,000 fine.

“In some cases, the facts are so egregious that it is appropriate for the Justice Department to bring the full force of the law to bear,” stated Mizer. “When we can show an intent to defraud or to mislead consumers or the FDA, a defendant can face felony charges.” To illustrate this scenario, Mizer referred to the landmark case against the Peanut Corporation of America, which is perhaps the most commonly referenced case in recent months, as many in the industry have voiced their opinion that it has set a precedent as to how the government will handle such situations moving forward.

Federal Government Takes Regulatory and Criminal Offensive Against Food Industry

 

Shawn K. Stevens, Food Industry Counsel
Food Safety Attorney

FDA’s Tactics to Reduce Outbreaks and Recalls

By Shawn K. Stevens
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Shawn K. Stevens, Food Industry Counsel

The advent of PulseNet in the late 1990s enabled more effective identification of outbreaks, even as many of them overlapped. The database brought to light the fact that many of the products sold in commerce nationwide contained ingredients that were at risk of contamination with dangerous pathogens. In many instances, these ingredients were in products from a single lot or batch and then sold by a single supplier to dozens of customers. From there, they were used in hundreds of products that would be distributed into thousands of retail locations.

Attend Food Safety Tech‘s Listeria Detection & Control Workshop | May 31–June 1 in St. Paul, MN | LEARN MOREFDA created the Reportable Food Registry (RFR) as a way to prevent the shipment of contaminated ingredients into the food supply. If received ingredients or products test positive for contaminants, the RFR requires that the company inform FDA. The agency uses the reports to take regulatory action against the original supplier and requires that all ingredients or products from all potentially affected lots be recalled from commerce. Because the RFR allows FDA to immediately begin tracking and containing ingredients testing positive for pathogens, its introduction in 2009 resulted in a significant spike in recalls.

Driven by the recalls triggered by PulseNet and the RFR, a national perception about an extremely unsafe U.S. food supply began to emerge. The public and media demanded that Congress take action, and so FSMA was born. The regulations require all FDA-regulated food companies to develop and implement written preventative control programs designed to control pathogens and other hazards in food. As a result, food companies will face heightened regulatory risk, scrutiny and exposure.

To further decrease the incidence of outbreaks and recalls, FDA is implementing regulatory enforcement initiatives that include sampling food products at retail for the presence of pathogens; conducting microbiological profiling of food processing facilities during routine inspections; and exploring criminal sanctions against companies that have been linked to positive samples in food products or production facilities associated with an outbreak or foodborne illness.

Microbiological Sampling in Retail

FDA is sampling products intended for human consumption as well as those for animal consumption. As testing continues at the retail level, the likelihood of more food products testing positive for the presence of pathogens is much higher. When positive product samples are found, FDA will take immediate action against the company that processed the product and require the company to recall all affected product. The agency will also demand access to the production facility at issue and conduct extensive environmental sampling, including from drains, floors, walls, production equipment, and finished products, in an effort to find the same strain as the sample testing positive at retail.  If product or environmental samples test positive, FDA will perform genetic DNA testing on the isolates and compare the DNA fingerprints against those of the isolates collected from sick case patients in PulseNet over the past 15 years. If a match between the DNA fingerprint and an illness(es) in PulseNet is found, the agency will presume that these illnesses were caused by product originating from that particular facility. FDA will also demand access to all food production and microbiological testing records from previous months, or years, and critique those records.

Microbiological Sampling in Food Production Facilities

In accordance with FSMA, FDA will inspect all food production facilities (drains, floors, walls, food processing equipment, and finished products) that process high-risk ingredients or food products within the next three years (lower risk facilities will be inspected within the next five years). The agency is also performing extensive microbiological profiling of the food processing environment in all production facilities during routine inspections. If a positive sample is found, FDA may require the company to recall the affected product. It is expected that the level of sampling will intensity in the coming months and years as a result of FSMA mandates. And as the extensive microbiological sampling in food production facilities continues, FDA will perform genetic DNA testing on any positive samples collected, once again comparing the DNA fingerprints of samples against those of sick case patients over the last two decades. If a match is found, FDA will take the same course of action as in retail and presume all illnesses were caused by a food product originating from that specific facility. When that occurs, in addition to the potential recalls that may be required, the food companies at issue may become the target of a criminal investigation as well.

My next column will cite recent examples of FDA’s criminal offensive against food companies.

Sanitation in Retail

Out with the Old: From Dirty Rags to Cleaner, Safer Technology in Retail

By Maria Fontanazza
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Sanitation in Retail

Across the board, increased employee awareness and training has become a big issue in food safety. The foodborne illness outbreaks that hit Chipotle Mexican Grill has put retail and restaurant establishments on high alert, yet this is just another example of the reactive culture in which we operate, according to Matt Schiering, vice president and general manager at Sani Professional.

Matt Schiering, Sani Professional
“Think about your own restaurant experiences. Guests don’t want to see or be confronted with a greyish brown rag [that is used to] wipe a table, then wipe a seat, then wipe an adjacent table. It just screams unclean,” says Matt Schiering of Sani Professional.
Food Safety Tech recently hit the road with Schiering and John Caton, regional sales manager at Sani Professional, to experience first hand how one company is communicating its message to customers. Breaking with tradition has been an important part of promoting cleaner technology: The use of the rag and bucket as a means to clean both the front of the house (tables, chairs, counters, etc.) as well as the back of restaurants and retail establishments, while still fairly common, has outlived its effectiveness, and frankly, says Schiering, “screams unclean”. Caton and Schiering continued the conversation with their customers about how using disposable wipes for cleaning, sanitizing and disinfection helps prevent the spread of contamination, along with the cost savings associated with using such products. The company takes a multi-prong approach to promoting awareness among its current and potential clients, from deploying a sales force that directly interacts with quality assurance and food safety professionals in establishments to offering how advances in sustainable technology can help them stay ahead of the curve to driving consumer advocacy.

Food Safety Tech: How is Sani Professional raising the level awareness of the disadvantages of the traditional cleaning method (the rag and bucket method) in the retail environment?

Matt Schiering: There are a few ways to raise the level of awareness. The first and foremost is “feet on the street”. We’ve deliberately moved toward a direct-to-customer sales force, which gives us the opportunity to interface directly with QA, food safety and operations to show them a simpler, more efficient, more effective, and guest appealing way versus the traditional rag and bucket. The first win is one for the user (the employees of a given establishment), because associates have shown us time and time again that they do not like the mixing and measuring, and the errors that are often associated with that process. They don’t like the dirty rag itself—having to fish it out of the bowl and then present it or be seen with it in the front of the establishment. It’s a win for the operator (the manager), because with our system, there’s no longer any heightened heart rate when the health inspector shows up. One of the most common violations is the water in the buckets being out of spec or the rags themselves not being inside the bucket per regulation. And perhaps most importantly, it’s a win for the guest. Think about your own restaurant experiences. Guests don’t want to see or be confronted with a greyish brown rag [that is used to] wipe a table, then wipe a seat, then wipe an adjacent table. It just screams unclean.

As we talk about the evolution in perception, away from traditional methods, we believe that speaking directly to the consumer has to play a role. There has to be a degree of consumer-driven advocacy for a better way. – Matt Schiering

FST: Regarding employee training, how should retailers be more proactive in ensuring their employees are engaging in proper food safety practices and aren’t spreading foodborne illnesses?

Schiering: It varies by chain. Unfortunately, we live in a reactive culture—and that goes well beyond the restaurant industry.

Oftentimes a problem precedes a protocol or other means of addressing said problem. Chipotle is one example: They’ve taken an exhaustive look at restructuring their food safety protocols as a result of a myriad of foodborne illness-related issues that they suffered in the preceding months. The [retailers] who are doing it best are the ones who build it into their establishment in the first place where it’s not predicated by some sort of problem. That involves training materials, in-service lessons, and online training (i.e., ServSafe certifications). Waffle House, for example, has Waffle House University where food safety is a key component to that system.

We envision ourselves as part of that process. We take a microcosm—the notion of proper food handling, prevention of cross contamination related foodborne illness—and provide an innovative and easy-to-use solution, and all the training and collateral materials associated with the solution that explain the proper use. We also provide test kits so that if the health inspector wants an in-the-moment proof that our product is doing what the label says it does, [the retailer] can provide that at a moments notice. It becomes more of a service proposition than simply a product-driven solution.

Sanitation in Retail
Using disposable wipes for cleaning, sanitizing and disinfection can help prevent the spread of cross contamination and foodborne illness.

FST: Where do you see sustainable products fitting into the space?

Schiering: This also boils down to education, because the perception of disposables is that they’re wasteful, when in fact they needn’t be any more costly than existing solutions.

If you’re using a linen service, there’s a cost associated with renting towels, but there’s a higher cost associated with wasting towels. So if a towel ends up in a gym bag or in the trash because of overuse and/or abuse, there’s a significant upcharge for not returning that towel to the rental agency. That’s what we call the hidden cost or the dirty little secret of rag and bucket sanitizing. When you factor that in, and everyone [retailers] experiences that type of loss, and you look at the fact that sanitizing wipes kill pathogens trapped in the wipe as well as whatever it is coming into contact with at the surface, thereby enabling it to be used on multiple surfaces without causing cross contamination—the cost aligns very closely. And of course it’s a more value-added guest experience than a dirty rag being used from table to table, which is not preventing cross contamination.

Speaking to the environmental piece: At the moment, we’re actually fairly well ahead of the industry. It varies chain to chain—some chains are doing a better job than others, because it’s part of their corporate culture. But by providing solutions that are leveraging either recyclable substrates or compostable substrates, we provide greater opportunity to reduce the environmental impact often associated with disposable products. If a retailer is working with a waste management partner that can handle industrial compostable products or non-solid state recyclables, we have solutions that are appropriate for those operations, so that we’re not just adding to landfills but rather essentially recycling and/or regenerating the products that are being used, and at no greater cost.

Most retailers haven’t gotten there yet. It speaks directly to corporate culture and corporate mission of the end user. We deliberately target customers who are a little bit ahead of the curve when it comes to “green technology or “green behavior”. And so when the rest of the industry catches up, we’re more than ready to serve them with products that meet those needs.

FST: Where do consumers fit into the picture, especially has industry moves away from traditional methods in food safety?

Schiering: About a decade ago, consumers started demanding that retailers like Walmart, Target, and local grocers provide a means of sanitizing shopping carts when they walk into their local retail establishments. There were myriad news reports about the germs and potential for contamination and illness arising from the often used and rarely cleaned implements—these vehicles for placing your groceries. We answered the call a decade ago, and at one time it was a significant piece of our business.  It continues to be a marketplace we serve, albeit a much commoditized one. But the rise in that solution would not have taken place if not for consumers advocating for a better way.

We’re starting to create a presence on Facebook and other social media outlets to remind consumers that it’s up to them in many cases to ask for, if not demand a more effective, more pleasing way of ensuring their safety in dining establishments. Unfortunately, incidents like what we saw at the large Mexican food service retailer do ultimately play a part in that consumer advocacy, albeit a negative one, because we are a reactive society. But by presenting a positive message and sharing alternatives in the absence of citing examples or shaming retailers through the problem, we believe that will be one of the keys to changing perceptions at the retail level.

Shawn K. Stevens, Food Industry Counsel
Food Safety Attorney

Federal Government Takes Regulatory and Criminal Offensive Against Food Industry

By Shawn K. Stevens
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Shawn K. Stevens, Food Industry Counsel

There was been a significant uptick in the amount of foodborne illness outbreaks and food product recalls (there were more than 500 food product recalls last year), many of which have been caused by dangerous pathogens. As FSMA plays a role in addressing this alarming trend, FDA is making several policy changes that will only continue to intensify. The agency is conducting microbiological profiling both inside food processing facilities during routine inspections and testing large amounts of food at the retail level. In addition, it has launched criminal investigations against food companies distributing products that have the potential to cause human illness. In many of these cases, company executives did not have direct knowledge that their products were causing, or had the potential to cause, illness. Many investigations involve Listeria monocytogenes (LM) found in food processing environments or in food products in commerce. Under FDA’s new approach, the failure to eliminate sporadic LM findings in the environment can subject companies to criminal liability. The immediate challenge to the food industry is to find a more effective solution to identify and reduce pervasive pathogens in the processing environment using pathogen-reduction technologies, while simultaneously employing written food safety protocols that can provide additional protection against criminal sanctions.

PulseNet Makes Foodborne Illness Link

Following the conclusion of the infamous the Jack-In-The Box outbreak that sickened 600 and killed four people more than two decades ago, the federal government recognized that similar outbreaks were probably occurring throughout the country, but there were no viable means of detection. As a result, the CDC created the PulseNet database, a mandatory foodborne illness reporting system to detect and track outbreaks in real time. From there, when a patient tested positive for a pathogen of concern (such as Listeria Monocytogenes, Salmonella or E. coli O157:H7), his or her doctor had to report that finding to the state health department. Each state requests copies of the isolates and tests them for the specific genetic DNA fingerprint of the pathogen of interest. These fingerprints are uploaded to PulseNet, and when indistinguishable genetic DNA fingerprints are uploaded from multiple victims, the CDC can recognize that an outbreak is emerging. The agency shares this information with FDA and other federal, state and local health departments as they work to determine a common source. Despite the fact that most illnesses uploaded to PulseNet remain unsolved, the database has helped CDC and FDA solve hundreds of outbreaks that have affected thousands of victims.

My subsequent columns will look at the emerging challenges faced by the food industry, including recent federal criminal investigations, some solutions designed to assess environmental contamination and reduce pathogens, and strategies that you can employ to reduce criminal liability.

Mike Hardegree, Proton Towels

Advancing Technology in Disinfection and Sanitation

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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Mike Hardegree, Proton Towels

“There is a lot of new technology that has taken place in sanitizers, [and] in practices, procedures and protocols to reduce the risk of foodborne illness,” said Mike Hardegree of Tietex International, Ltd at the Food Safety Consortium. “The cotton towel and the disinfecting and cleaning towels most often used are the same ones that have been used for many, many years.”

In the following video, Hardegree and Margaret Hearon, market development manager at Teitex share how the single-use towel technology is reducing the risk of cross contamination.

 

Deirdre Schlunegger, CEO of STOP Foodborne Illness
Food Safety Culture Club

A Face Behind Foodborne Illness

By Deirdre Schlunegger
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Deirdre Schlunegger, CEO of STOP Foodborne Illness

How is it possible that we are already near the end of the first quarter of the new year?  Time Marches on (pun intended). STOP Foodborne Illness continues to hear the devastating stories of foodborne illness. I am glad that companies vow to turn things around once things have gone wrong, but I do wish that the same companies had been paying attention long before individuals and families had to experience foodborne illness and live with life-long consequences. I believe that, when conducting in food safety training, sharing stories of those impacted by foodborne illness makes a difference. FSMA implementation is being taught, lectured about, absorbed, integrated, regurgitated and debated. FDA Deputy Commissioner of Foods and Veterinary Medicine Mike Taylor, along with his staff, intimately understand the “why” behind FSMA. Every step of the way, human life has been at the forefront of his prevention-based strategy and plans for new food safety legislation.

As company stock prices fall due to foodborne illness outbreaks, there are heartbreaking stories of families that may never recover emotionally—and this doesn’t always make the news. Chris, who was sick during the fall season, recently shared his story

Chris and his wife
Chris and his wife

He wrote, “I wish that I could express to another person what this experience has been like for me. The physical symptoms are so much more severe than a typical stomach flu or food poisoning, but the truly difficult part has been the emotional anguish I have felt. This illness has been traumatic for me, and I still struggle with the effects of it. I wish it would never happen to another person and I greatly fear having to go through it again when I am older or less healthy—I truly believed it would kill me. I also wish that others would be able to understand how scary it is to feel your life slipping away through illness like this. Feeling like your body is out of control. For it all to occur from eating what I thought was clean and healthy food is sad for me and I hope that no one ever has to feel or experience what I went through.”

Food safety is not a flavor of the month cause or a nice thing in which to aspire. It is critical for the good health of individuals and the good health of business.

Thanks for reading.