What the Future Holds

Over the last few decades, public focus on food safety has increased due to better detection and traceback techniques, greater media attention, emerging pathogens and increased liability for food processors and retailers. Serious questions exist around the quality and safety of fresh produce. BSE in cattle has, on several occasions, rocked the beef industry. The risk of a deliberate attack on the food supply is described by the World Health Organization and others as a “real and current threat.” Animal welfare, allergens and ingredient traceability can be added to the more conventional areas of risk such as food safety, worker safety and public liability.

In this changing landscape of food safety, retailers, processors and distributors are increasingly looking outside their own quality control departments for help in ensuring the safety of their food. This need for outside inspections is particularly acute in the face of projected budget cuts to FDA’s inspection programs, including checks on imported foods. If Congress approves the budget, the number of domestic food safety inspections in FY 2006 would fall by five percent. As the federal government decreases the number of inspections it conducts, third-party auditing companies will be the best choice to provide reassurance.

A major goal for any food safety program is to reduce risk behaviors that can cause food-borne illnesses. Independent, third-party food safety audits and inspections can show levels of compliance with a company’s food safety program and can point out specific risk factors. These, in turn, help shape intervention strategies and drives decision-making on issues such as employee training, equipment purchases and facility design.

A recent study 1 tracing the results of independent food safety audits found some compelling data to support this. A year’s worth of independent audit data from 2,400 restaurant locations in North America (1,500 full service and 900 quick service) show restaurants that implement formal food safety management systems are able to significantly reduce restaurant-level food safety violations, including risk behaviors the CDC most commonly associates with food-borne illness outbreaks. Those same restaurants typically experience ongoing improvement in overall food safety.

Since food safety and quality significantly affect customer satisfaction, restaurants and other retail-level food providers are taking the idea of independent food safety audits outside their facility’s walls. They are finding that food safety and quality assurance audits of their suppliers are a powerful and cost-effective way to ensure that their suppliers and distributors have the prerequisite good manufacturing practices (GMPs) and quality systems in place to provide safe food.

From Fork Back to the Farm

While improper holding temperature and poor personal hygiene top the list of factors that lead to food-borne illness, “food from unsafe sources” is another key factor. These are linked to about five percent of food-borne illness outbreaks, according to the CDC. Even with a perfect HACCP system in place, a food company can fall victim to a supply chain problem, such as the contaminated green onions distributed to a Mexican restaurant chain that resulted in a massive Hepatitis A outbreak. Had the restaurant chain known more about the quality systems of its green onion suppliers, the company might have avoided this crippling incident.

In the summer of 2004, Roma tomatoes contaminated with salmonella were distributed to convenience stores in Pennsylvania for use in deli subs and sandwiches. The contaminated tomatoes sickened nearly 600 people in a multi-state area. While the CDC cleared the convenience store of any fault, the source of the contamination has still not been determined. The supplier to the convenience store chain, however, was forced to shut its doors due to losses incurred by the outbreak.

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