Food Safety Happens in a Vacuum

Over the past couple of decades, many millions of dollars and countless man-hours have been invested in the ever-growing war against foodborne illness. Learning the intricacies of every pathogen down to the mitochondria and beyond, studying the makeup of a biofilm, inventing a new intervention or vaccine to reduce pathogens on hides, expending extra effort to ensure the blades of a deli slicer are clean after the lunch rush, and millions more individual actions all contribute to the battle against the unseen, persistent enemies of health and food safety.

Knowledge, understanding, hard work, and the tools of the trade are all weapons that, when combined and applied effectively, can result in food safety for billions of people around the world.

Unfortunately, very few people fully understand the herculean effort that goes into ensuring that the world’s food supply is as pathogen-free as possible. Most people assume, as I did before I became more involved with the food industry, that food safety just happens and that any outbreak or recall simply arises from a lack of effort on the part of the manufacturer. Having gained a better understanding of the hard work and massive expense that go into food safety and quality assurance, I can attest that nothing could be farther from the truth.

The M-Vac is a non-destructive, highly sensitive sampling method.

The M-Vac is a non-destructive, highly sensitive sampling method.

How is it, then, that despite the hard work, massive expense, and unprecedented knowledge, technology, and information that freely and rapidly flow around the world, there are still so many foodborne illness incidents and recalls—and what is being done about it? It’s not an unfair question by any means, and it’s one that is asked increasingly amid today’s technological wonders and our ever-increasing expectation of instantaneous solutions.

Unfortunately, we tend to expect, along with lives that often exist somewhere between the microwave and level 24 of the latest zombie videogame, fresh and delicious food that is absolutely unblemished and perfectly safe. Eliminating the causes of foodborne disease surely can’t be more difficult than sweeping a computer virus or online dating?

In order to bravely exit the sterile bubble we’d like to be in when it comes to food, we must acknowledge several critical facts of life:

  • There is no such thing as zero pathogens in food. The reality is that contamination can be introduced at any point, including in your own kitchen;
  • The closer you get to zero pathogens in or on a food or food surface, the more difficult it is to detect those pathogens; and
  • It is in everyone’s best interest, and, frankly, it is the responsibility of every individual from farm to fork, to make the food chain as safe and secure as possible.

Food safety was once again thrust into the national spotlight with the Food Safety Modernization Act. For some, the heightened public attention on food safety is a major victory, while for others it’s a nuisance—or a nightmare.

For a real-life opinion of what that spotlight feels like, I imagine the previous owners of the Peanut Corporation of America could give us an interesting perspective. Regardless of anyone’s opinion about whether or not the spotlight is a good thing, I believe it’s here to stay, as do pretty much all of the folks that I have talked to.

Origin of a Solution

Although there were major outbreaks prior to 1993, one of the first major foodborne illness outbreaks that gained international notoriety was the 1993 E. coli outbreak involving undercooked hamburgers. It created a new form of litigation and a new sense of business exposure for the food industry.

During that outbreak, Bruce Bradley, PhD, became particularly bothered by the suffering and damage E. coli was causing, especially for children, and decided to contribute to the solution.

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