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Dan Okenu, Ph.D., Food Safety Manager, H-E-B
Retail Food Safety Forum

World Health Day Shines Spotlight on Food Safety

By Dan Okenu, Ph.D.
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Dan Okenu, Ph.D., Food Safety Manager, H-E-B

Drawing attention to the fierce urgency to advance overall food safety and reduce the devastating impact of food borne illnesses around the world, the World Health Organization (WHO) dedicated the 2015 World Health Day to Food Safety. To support these efforts, the Laureate International Universities hosted a special webinar as part of its annual activities to mark World Health Day. During the webinar, Constance Shumba, a public health faculty at the University of Roehampton (London) and I explored the potential impact of FSMA on the global food supply with a case study on how the people and government of Uganda are advancing food safety in the sub-Saharan African country.

Globally, more than 2.2 million people, most of whom are children, die of foodborne and waterborne diarrheal diseases annually. In the United States alone, the CDC estimates that 48 million people become ill from food borne diseases each year. About 128,000 of these individuals are hospitalized, resulting in more than 3,000 deaths. The overall annual U.S. economic burden due to food borne illnesses is estimated to cost $77.7 billion.

These grim statistics illustrate the necessity to overhaul the outdated U.S. food safety system. FSMA is the most significant statutory change to both human and animal food safety in more than 70 years (since the passage of the Food Safety & Cosmetic Act of 1938). It is a radical shift from FDA’s previously reactive approach to a more robust, proactive scientific and risk-based prevention-oriented system. When fully implemented in 2016, the most important impact of FSMA will be to ensure that contaminated foods as well as those containing unwholesome or adulterated ingredients never reach retailers and consumers. Interestingly, FSMA may also positively affect the global food supply chain as it drives the improvement of food safety practices around the world, especially in countries that export food and food products to the United States.

Several provisions of FSMA will affect food exporters to the United States both in terms of reshaping their local food safety policies to align with the new law and the resulting improvement in food safety practices. Some of the areas of potential impact include:

  • Foreign Supplier Verification Program
  • Effective Traceability and Recall Program
  • Hazard Analysis and Risk-based Preventive Control (HARPC) System
  • Documentation and Record Keeping Inspections
  • Sanitary Transportation Rule for Human and Animal Foods
  • Produce Safety Standards for the Growing, Harvesting, Packing and Holding of Produce for Human Consumption.

Notably, regulatory agencies of major U.S. trading partners are in the process of updating their food safety laws to ensure that local food productions remain in compliance with FSMA. Canada, Mexico, China and Australia are among the countries that are proactively working with their U.S. counterparts to ensure compliance and uninterrupted food exports to U.S. markets. Overall, it will be easier for developed economies with fairly robust food safety regulatory policies to upgrade and catch up with the new FSMA requirements.

Developing nations will be the hardest hit, as an extensive overhaul may be required to meet FSMA regulations. In the face of poor infrastructures, these countries may struggle when upgrading their systems to achieve compliance and maintain a certain level of trade relations with the United States, not just in raw materials or unprocessed food and food products, but also in valued-added food exports. Despite these challenges, these countries are motivated to remain trusted U.S. food-trading partners and will most likely improve their food safety policies and practices, thus helping to make the global food supply safer.

Uganda is an example of a developing country that is making serious efforts to improve its food safety policies and programs. The country is working on its Food and Drug Act of 1964 and its subsequent Drug Act of 1993 to develop a modern and unified National Food Safety Law. To make the global food supply safer through FSMA, the United States must collaborate with its trading partners around the world in building and upgrading their food safety systems. This would be beneficial to U.S. companies doing business in foreign countries either in terms of manufacturing their own private food labels or simply in assisting local industries in these countries in growing, processing and packaging food and food products destined for the U.S. market. It would also help these countries upgrade their food safety laws, improve export capabilities, and balance trade with the United States, consequently making food safer for their own citizens.

During the webinar we also emphasized the need to focus on the family kitchen in improving food safety practices around the world, using the five WHO key principles to a safer quality food:

  • Keep clean—engage in proper washing of hands and food contact surfaces
  • Cook food thoroughly to the required temperatures
  • Separate raw and ready-to-eat (RTE) foods to avoid cross-contamination
  • Keep food at safe temperatures to ensure that hot food remains hot and cold food remains cold at all times
  • Use safe water and raw materials to avoid cross-contamination

We all agreed that the culture of food safety must start in the home and at a very early stage in life and from there, spread to our schools, and public and private institutions. Food companies must do all that is necessary to uphold the integrity of the highly profitable food industry by delivering safe quality food to their customers. Overall, the global food supply chain will be made safer with a considerable reduction in food borne illnesses, and chemical or physical adulteration of foods.

The webinar referenced in this column, “From Farm to Fork – A Public Health Perspective”, can be found on the Walden University (Minneapolis) website.

Okenu is also affiliated with Walden University as a contributing professor in public health

Four Large Retailers Asked to Stop Selling ‘Mislabeled’ Herbal Supplements

The New York Attorney General’s office has ordered Walmart, Target, Walgreens and GNC to stop selling “mislabeled” herbal supplements, after independent lab tests of these supplements have revealed that they do not contain ingredients as stated on the labels.

NY Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has sent cease-and-desist letters to all four companies demanding that they stop selling their store-brand herbal supplements because DNA barcoding showed that 79 percent of them either didn’t contain the stated ingredient(s), or were contaminated by other filler materials such as rice and wheat to which some people might be allergic. The companies have been asked to respond by February 9, with information about how their store-brand supplements are processed, according to a NY Times report.

“The topic of purity (or lack thereof) in popular herbal dietary supplements has raised serious public health and safety concerns, and also caused this office to take steps to independently assess the validity of industry and advertising,” the letters stated, adding that “Contamination, substitution and falsely labeling herbal products constitute deceptive business practices and, more importantly, present considerable health risks for consumers.”

Tests were done at the request of the New York AG’s office on the following store-brand supplements: Ginkgo Biloba, St. John’s Wort, Ginseng, Echinacea, Valerian Root, Garlic and Saw Palmetto. Three to four samples of each supplement purchased in different parts of the state were tested. Each sample was tested five times, for a total of 390 tests on 78 samples.

Only 4 percent of Walmart’s supplements (“Spring Valley” brand) actually contained the ingredients listed on the label, while 18 percent did at Walgreens (“Finest Nutrition” brand), 22 percent at GNC (“Herbal Plus” brand), and 41 percent at Target stores (“Up & Up” brand). Only the GNC garlic consistently tested as advertised, according to the AG’s office.

A Walmart spokesperson has said that the retailer is immediately reaching out to the suppliers of these products to learn more information and will take appropriate action. Walgreens agreed to remove the products from its stores across the country, even though only New York was requiring it to do so. GNC confirmed that the products in question had been removed from its store shelves.

Creighton R. Magid is a partner at the international law firm Dorsey & Whitney and head of its Washington DC office, supported Attorney General Schneiderman’s actions and described that “he is taking aim at these herbal supplements not by attacking their efficacy or health risk, which would be more difficult to prove, but by alleging false labeling – something that can presumably be proved with a lab test to establish the actual ingredients.”

“Unless the manufacturers or retailers can show that the ingredients of these products are as shown on the labels – and not merely powdered versions of a junior high lunch – these products will probably start disappearing from store shelves rather quickly,” Magid added.

Dan Okenu, Ph.D., Food Safety Manager, H-E-B
Retail Food Safety Forum

Combating Norovirus Hazards in Retail Foodservice

By Dan Okenu, Ph.D.
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Dan Okenu, Ph.D., Food Safety Manager, H-E-B

Norovirus is the number one cause of foodborne disease outbreaks worldwide. It makes people sick causing nausea, stomach cramping, vomiting and diarrhea or “stomach flu” and leads to a lot of discomfort and even death, especially in vulnerable populations like children and the elderly. Elevated risk of infection is associated with certain foods that are served raw, like fruits and vegetables, contaminated ready-to-eat (RTE) foods, or improperly cooked Oysters from contaminated waters. According to the CDC, Norovirus is the leading cause of illness and outbreaks from contaminated foods in the United States, especially in retail foodservice settings like restaurants.

Some of the potential sources of Norovirus outbreaks in retail foodservice are as follows:

  • Infected food handlers
  • Infected non-food workers and guests
  • Bare hands contact with RTE foods
  • Contamination of food deliveries at source
  • Improper cleaning and disposal of body fluids
  • Training gap on sanitizer and disinfectant use
  • Aerosolized vomitus around food and people
  • Contaminated food contact and non-food contact surfaces
  • Improper hand washing by food handlers
  • Cross contamination from restrooms
  • Cross contamination from high touch points in the back of the house

It is apparent from the statistics that Norovirus constitutes a major hazard to the retail foodservice industry. The good news, however, is that there are a lot of cost-effective strategies that can be implemented in a proactive manner to reduce its spread and impact on businesses, protect customers and the bottom line. Some of these preventive measures will be discussed here and in next week’s blog post.Norovirus_thumb

Proper Hand Washing by Foodservice Workers

Proper hand washing is the most cost-effective method for preventing cross-contaminations including Norovirus in a retail foodservice environment. Hand wash sinks should be appropriately located to encourage compliance by both foodservice workers and guests. For example; the food code requires handling dry clean dishes with clean hands during the dish washing process. Thus, it makes a lot sense to install a hand wash sink in close proximity to an automated dishwasher. This will enhance hand washing compliance by Team Members before handling and stacking dry clean dishes. Adequate soap and hand sanitizers should be provided at all hand washing stations including restrooms. Whereas the use of hand sanitizers is not a replacement for proper hand washing with soap, there is evidence that hand sanitizers are effective against Norovirus. Proper hand washing remains the preferred option however, since the use of soap can indeed get rid of other cross contaminating organic matter and dirt. Incentive programs may be used to encourage frequent and proper hand washing by foodservice workers. More resources may be found at handwashingforlife.com to help foodservice establishments update their hand washing culture.

While enforcing proper hand washing among foodservice employees is desirable, it is also advisable to encourage hand washing among guests. Norovirus can be transmitted by infected guests to the foodservice establishment especially in buffet style restaurants where guests come in very close proximity with RTE foods. Facility design that encourages hand washing by guests was elegantly captured by the Florida based PDQ restaurant chain that installed a hand wash sink in their main dining room with a strong brand statement that “quality and clean go hand in hand”. The strategic location of a hand wash sink encourages hand washing by guests, especially among children in the full view of their parents, and with less cross contaminating contact surfaces as found in the restrooms.

Restroom Cleaning and Sanitation

Color coded cleaning and sanitizing tools are recommended for restrooms to prevent cross contamination. Tools will be dedicated for use in restrooms only and stored in a dedicated storage or closet to avoid accidental use in other areas of the foodservice establishment. The restroom can be the most important part of the restaurant with opportunities to prevent infections. Guests may also use the cleanliness of the restroom as a measure of food safety commitment by the retail food establishment (see my previous blog on “Clean Matters”). Thus, extra efforts are required to maintain and keep restrooms in a clean and sanitary condition all the time. Use of disinfectant grade chemicals for disinfecting restrooms, body fluids clean-up and high touch point areas is recommended. The alternative of preparing high concentration sanitizers is laborious and prone to mistakes by foodservice workers. In addition, such high concentrated sanitizers like 1000 – 5000 ppm chlorine-based sanitizer can be a safety concern to employees when used without PPEs. Frequent cleaning, disinfecting and replenishing of hand soap and sanitizers in the restroom are effective measures against restroom infections and cross contaminations including Norovirus.

Stay tuned for more preventative measures to be discussed in next week’s blog post…