Recent food recalls—from pet food to peanut paste to bagged spinach—and the increased media attention to those recalls have seemingly tarnished the image of the food industry. Consumers are, for the most part, unaware of the effort, time, talent, and resources that go into making their food supply safe.
“The public doesn’t think the food industry is doing enough to protect them,” said Jerry Mithen, vice president of manufacturing services at RQA Inc., a consulting company for the food industry and other industries in Darien, Ill. “Some of the public interest groups and lawyers that solicit class action lawsuits are fanning the fire of these isolated events, making the public think the American food supply is less than safe, when in fact it’s the safest in the world,” he told Food Quality.
“Consumers have a right to expect safe, high-quality food,” said Joan Menke-Schaenzer, chief global quality officer at ConAgra, headquartered in Omaha, Neb. “The thing to remember about food safety is that it is not a competitive advantage; it’s a point of entry. Everybody in the food industry, whether it’s a restaurant, grocery store, or manufacturer, has to provide safe, quality food.”
Although the food industry is aware of the negative public opinion, not all companies are committed to improving the industry’s image, according to Mike Doyle, PhD, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia in Griffin, Ga. “Frankly, my experience has been that not all food companies are equally committed to ensuring the safety of their products,” Dr. Doyle told Food Quality. “It’s incumbent on all companies to raise that bar for food safety to a much higher level, and there are several companies highly motivated to do that.”
What Is the Food Industry Doing Right?
According to Dr. Doyle, companies committed to safety employ strong food safety programs that not only meet the requirements of the law, including the good manufacturing practices promulgated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), but also go above and beyond those requirements.
It takes diligence every day. It’s not just talk; it’s action behind the talk.
Joan Menke-Schaenzer, ConAgra
Those “highly committed” manufacturers employ what Dr. Doyle calls “a first-class safety program.” Such a program includes a vice president who oversees safety independent of quality, internal unannounced audits to determine the real-life day-to-day conditions in food processing plants, and critical reviews to ensure that plants are performing under the best conditions possible. Many of these companies also perform finished product testing, he said.
“The bottom line is that food safety costs money. If we want to raise the bar and provide better ways to ensure the safety of food, it’s going to cost more,” Dr. Doyle said.
According to Mithen, the food industry is working hard to ensure safety. “The food industry does almost everything that can be done technically correct. They have fundamental programs of pest control, basic hygiene, employee training, good laboratory practices, hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) programs, foreign matter control—the list goes on.”
Mithen said the industry has quickly adopted HACCP principles, and some companies in non-HACCP-regulated industries have also accepted those principles. Most companies also have supplier inspection programs, require split samples, and perform laboratory analysis and third-party external audits. “The public generally doesn’t see any of this,” Mithen said.
Collaboration Within Industry
Menke-Schaenzer said industry is working collaboratively with the FDA, the USDA, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Manufacturers are also working together to share best practices for safe food delivery and education.
Carletta Ooton, chief quality and product integrity officer at Coca-Cola, highlighted the benefits of the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI). Forums such as the GFSI did not exist a few years ago. “[Now] there’s a real concerted effort to work together,” she said. “You actually see industry asking for legislative change.”