The Modern Age of Food Quality and Safety

What was the world of food quality and safety like 10 years ago? It’s a question that is pondered as easily as what the next decade will bring. After a series of ups and downs, the values of safety and quality have muscled to the forefront, but there is still work to be done.

Ten years ago, HACCP was the pale horse, the agency that sat upon it was FDA and hell came with it. The Nutrition Facts Label had also just been introduced to give consumers detailed dietary information, and the proliferation of microbiology labs ushered science into food processing companies as a top priority after federal regulators called for baseline testing.

That wasn’t all that the quality assurance and control sector of the food and beverage industry was experiencing a decade ago. The North American food and beverage industry was reeling and undergoing a metamorphosis that was sparked by a series of unfortunate events that many still, to this day, cringe at the very thought of.

In fact, the early to mid 1990s was a time of great growing pains for an industry that was essentially exposed by the media, which churned out story after story on outbreaks and untimely deaths from E. coli and Salmonella. The coverage brought consumer awareness to an all time high, and it forced suppliers, processors, retailers and regulators to change virtually everything about the food industry.

“After that incident in 1993, when the children from the Northwest died, we started looking for ways to kill that bug,” says Eldon Roth, founder and chairman of Beef Products Inc., a Dakota Dunes, S.D., beef processor and winner of the 2004 Food Quality Award.

From Sovereignty to Globalization

What Beef Products did was indicative of how the United States and Europe tackled the consumer- and regulatory-imposed paradigm shifts. Most food companies and regulatory agencies took the challenges head on; and so began a new era of food quality.

“Over the last 10 years, the biggest change was in the worldwide attitude towards globalization of the food supply,” says Kevin Huttman, president of DuPont Qualicon (Wilmington, Del.). “What that’s led to is making sure that the consolidated industry players now have good processes and controls in place to safeguard and sustain their brand image and to ensure they are meeting ever-increasing demands by the consumer for higher quality and safer foods.”

A decade ago, he says, food quality and safety were considered costs, necessary evils, to food companies. “Food companies have now changed their attitude,” Huttman says. “They see it as a way to increase productivity and bottom-line profits.”

Ten years ago also marked a time of transformation for European nations. The newly formed European Union (EU), now a major force in worldwide food quality and safety, was struggling to find its identity in order to establish a unified food code as it battled the elusive bovine spongiform encephalopathy, mad cow disease, and later, a foot-and-mouth epidemic that compounded to a loss of confidence in the food supply.

Meanwhile, a new understanding and awareness of the importance of foodborne disease was developing, as Laurian J. Unnevehr, a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, points out in “Food Safety and Food Quality.” The paper was penned in 2001 for “A 2020 Vision for Food, Agriculture, and the Environment,” an International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) initiative.

The result, Unnevehr explains, was that food safety and quality are more important issues for the world’s consumers, who increasingly demand greater safety assurances from food producers and regulators. This increased awareness coincides with the identification of new pathogens and their potential long-term consequences, coupled with better surveillance and trace-back techniques.

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