Food safety concerns have risen dramatically in recent years because of the severe consequences of foodborne illnesses. In order to assure product quality, optimize the efficiency and throughput of continuous processes, and comply with governmental regulations, the food industry must perform rigorous, real-time product safety testing on a regular basis.
Explore this issueJune/July 2008
Also by this Author
This is where laboratory information management system (LIMS) software proves useful. By automatically capturing sample data, checking for out-of-specification results, and assembling data into a variety of report formats, LIMS software can help companies comply with strict regulations, thereby ensuring the safety of their products. In addition, this system offers real-time access to critical laboratory information spread across disparate locations, enabling prompt identification of safety hazards while accelerating productivity and time to market.
Food Safety Issues and Concerns
The global food industry is changing and evolving constantly as food manufacturers, distributors, and retailers strive to satisfy a growing consumer demand for high quality, safe food. Foodborne diseases are estimated to cause approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year.1 Nationwide product recalls highlight the devastating effects foodborne illnesses can have: In 2006, contaminated peanut butter caused more than 300 people to become ill, of whom at least 50 were hospitalized, while in 2007, contaminated spinach caused 206 illnesses, three deaths, and more than 100 hospitalizations. Incidents of kidney failure and deaths in cats and dogs initiated an extended recall of more than 100 brands of pet food in 2007.2 Most recently, the United States Department of Agriculture recalled 143 million pounds of beef—35 million pounds of which had entered a school lunch program—in the nation’s largest food recall, highlighting the need for better tracking and audit trails of food.3
Shifting demographics and changing consumption patterns are increasing food safety problems in the United States.4 Consider, for example, that by 2015 approximately 20% of the country’s population will be over the age of 60. Because people 60 years and older very often suffer from illnesses that suppress their immune systems, they are more susceptible to foodborne diseases. Americans’ tendency to consume convenience foods that may have been subject to cross-contamination from other foods or from workers causes another problem. Finally, foods that are consumed raw or with minimal processing are often associated with foodborne illnesses.
Rise in Imported Food
Globalization also affects the safety of the food supply. In countries that used to depend wholly on their own food production, imports from other countries have soared dramatically. In the United States, food imports have increased by about 50%, with approximately 25,000 shipments arriving daily from more than 100 countries.5 Consumers in the United States purchase approximately $2 trillion worth of products that are brought in by over 800,000 importers through over 300 ports of entry.
A number of forces in both developing and developed countries are driving this change. Incomes that have more than doubled in many countries during the past two decades have increased food purchasing power considerably. Lower transportation costs stim- ulate trade.7 And researchers have noted an ever-increasing consumer appetite for foreign foods and beverages.
In an attempt to ensure food safety and safeguard public health, global regulatory bodies have introduced and enforced stringent rules. The World Health Organization’s Department of Food Safety, Zoonoses, and Foodborne Diseases, for example, has developed a Global Strategy for Food Safety. Its goal is to reduce the health and social burden of foodborne illness by advising and assisting member states to lessen exposure to unacceptable levels of chemicals or microorganisms in food.8 The European Union has published a white paper on food safety that proposes implementing certain measures to achieve the highest possible level of health protection.