The Little Things Still Matter
The Experts Weigh in
FSD talked with three industry experts to find out what food safety problems are the most challenging right now and where the future of food safety is going.
Jorge Hernandez, senior vice president of food safety and quality assurance for U.S. Foodservice
“Operators’ confidence is one of the big concerns right now because they don’t have the confidence in the safety of the food that they buy and sell. The recent FDA advisories and recalls and media stories have undermined that confidence. I get many calls from non-commercial operators trying to understand food safety concerns. Their concerns are in two parts: Understanding the safety of the products they buy and being able to answer questions from their customers when food safety issues arise.
We’ve developed what we call Fast Facts. When a new issue comes up, we develop a bulletin that says what the issue is, and the background about why it is important. We tell them what we are doing about it to mitigate the risk and what they should be doing about it. We blast it to all of our distribution centers and salespeople. We put it on the Web site. The idea is to get it to all of the 250,000 customers that we have as fast as we can.
For many years we’ve known that there are a large number of outbreaks, but what we did not know was what the causes were and where they were coming from. As technology helps us identify the ‘bugs,’ and we start to identify where they are coming from, we are plugging those holes. Unfortunately, to the public in general, they feel like more things are happening. The truth of the matter is that these things have been happening all along and people call it the flu or other things. Technology has allowed us to monitor outbreaks across the county. That’s what changed the game. As technology is progressing and we are faster to identify these things, we will continue to see these kinds of recalls and warnings more. As long as we in the industry identify them and fix them, they will tailor off. But it’s not going to happen for a long while.
What I think we are going to learn, and we have already started to see it in the recent events, is that ingredients can be a problem too. Like when a chemical gets identified as a problem and then that chemical is in milk, then the milk becomes an ingredient of 10 or 15 different products, that’s going to become more relevant.
The last thing we need to get over in the United States is that food safety has no geography. You can find good safety all across the world. There is this thought that if you know the person who sold you the product that it is going to be safe, but that’s not necessarily true. You need to trust and then verify.
Things are going to get worse before they get better. The good news is that this is at the top of the public’s mind. Food safety is a partnership with everybody in the food chain. It’s not just who you buy from, but it’s who that person buys from. Very often what happens with a problem in the chain is it doesn’t get mitigated and the person who is going to bear the brunt of that is the operator. Food safety needs to be a primary concern about who people buy from. It’s not just about price.”
Lee Johnson, director of technical services for Butterball LLC.
“The first problem I see right now is training and understanding good handling practices related to food safety, such as hand washing and sanitizing equipment. That’s going to be an ongoing challenge because you have to make sure that everybody who comes in is trained. I think it’s also about knowing the impact of that activity. Another is procedures to make these activities easy. On the manufacturing side, we put in processes to make sure that everything gets done right. In order to get in our ready-to-eat processing rooms, you have to go through a boot washer and be wearing special garb; it’s a clean room environment. So we make it tougher to do things wrong than it would be to do it right.
The last is the implementation of those systems, so how effective are those activities when they occur and are those systems being applied universally?
There has been a tremendous amount of improvement in the past few years, especially with HACCP. As our processes evolve, we are going to see a continuum right to the storefront. It’s no secret that foodservice operations and retail places have a problem with food sanitation, and I think that’s where we as an industry are working toward next.
I think the regulatory agencies will continue to tighten down on processors. Some of the systems will continue to tighten down and we will get more savvy as technology improves. I think, ultimately, we will translate a little bit more of the food safety regulations down the supply chain right to the vendors who are selling to the end users.
I think new organisms, such as campylobacter jejuni, will become bigger issues for raw meat purveyors in the future.”