Do you know where your food has been before you ate it? No? You’re not alone. For many consumers, the questions of where their food originated from (and the travel route it took), was processed, or was handled, is not a consideration. There is a faction of consumers that will research the country of origin, but recent action by the U.S. Congress on meat products now discloses that information to the public.
For processed foods, labels may not be as informative. Processed, or Packaged in the U.S.A. does not necessarily mean ingredients were grown or raised in the U.S.; just as Bottled in Italy does not mean grown in Italy. That said, processing under U.S. or Italian standards may compare favorably to some countries and unfavorably to others. For example, Organic can have one definition in the U.S., and another in France. Likewise, products sold in the 28 European Union, Japan, Australia, India, Russia and China require products containing GMO products to be labeled as such, whereas the U.S., Canada, Mexico, as well as most African countries, do not require GMO labeling.
Center for Food Safety graphic showing those requiring Genetically Engineered food label requirements. Countries in dark green require mandatory labeling of nearly all Genetically Engineered food. Lighter green countries require lesser amounts of labeling. All others have no GE labeling requirements.
The fact is that for U.S. producers, processors, transporters, distributors and retailers, food safety is the responsibility of everyone in the food chain under new FSMA rules. Not only employees but executives at food industry companies may be personally responsible for food safety. Financial and personal risks of foodborne disease outbreaks is not only shared by the final food outlet but the entire supply chain. The good news? FSMA provides guidance and recommendations as well as regulations and inspections to help supply chain participants ensure food safety.
A recent piece from Food Logistics titled FDA To Test Cucumbers And Hot Peppers This Month Under FSMA discusses the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tests of cucumbers and hot peppers this past November. The FDA collected samples of imported cucumbers and hot peppers from ports of entry as well as domestic and import samples from packing houses, manufacturers and distributors within the U.S. The agency is developing a microbiological surveillance sampling model to prevent contamination. The goal is to help develop tools to assure food sold in the U.S. is safe from harmful contamination and reducing the almost weekly national headlines questioning whether American consumers can be assured their food is safe.
Food Safety Tech graphics showing Risk Assessment in the Supply Chain (left) and Supply Chain Challenges for food safety (right)
Starting with produce is a good place to focus on supply chain audits. A 2015 Consumer Affairs piece notes that although many other foods pound-for-pound are more dangerous, fresh produce is the leading cause of foodborne illness. Because it is often eaten raw, produce contaminated with harmful microorganisms caused over 600 outbreaks that affected more than 20,000 people over a recent ten year period.
A study of data by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) found that “most outbreaks (1,283) began in restaurants, but their average size per outbreak is smaller than outbreaks that occurred in group settings such as catered events, churches, schools and prisons where large numbers of people are eating the same food. The study found the foodborne illness surveillance system is improving, but more needs to be done.” Illnesses caused by cilantro contaminated with the intestinal parasite Cyclospora illustrate the problem. It took three years of outbreaks before investigators found the source—cilantro grown in Mexican fields that were littered with toilet paper and human feces. “Far too many outbreaks are not getting solved quickly or are going unsolved altogether, thereby forgoing opportunities to implement corrective measures,” David Plunkett, co-author of the study said. “We need a better surveillance system.”
The FDA’s focus on developing testing models under FSMA can assist and potentially accelerate detection of potential food safety problems. In cooperation with all levels of the food supply chain, groundwork done now will pay huge dividends in the future. Advanced models and testing methods could help prevent outbreaks that make national headlines and damage otherwise healthy companies, lowering the risk for the food industry and consumers alike. Recent consumer trends in selecting healthier foods show that there is a market for diligence. Those who lag in such efforts may find themselves catching up or left behind while their customers go elsewhere.
As new methods are developed, tried and true ones can and do have a role. Robust and active HACCP plans, supplier audits, and use of third-party testing labs are ways to help ensure a business’ supply chain is safe. Additionally cost-effective, fault-tolerant temperature monitoring alarms help insure that refrigerated and frozen food products are maintained at temperatures that retard or stop the growth of harmful bacteria and other harmful organisms. State of the art devices based on cellular connectivity and cloud-based alert, alarm, escalation plan implementation, data logging and reporting templates provide auditable reports to help companies show both inspectors and the public of their commitment to food safety.