Produce and agricultural manufacturers and processors have long embraced Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) principles since they were first developed in the 1960s. For those producing meats and poultry, seafood, juices, and a few other high-risk categories, following a HACCP plan isn’t just a good practice; it’s required under federal regulations. But as only one link in the farm-to-fork food safety continuum, manufacturers and processors alone cannot protect consumers from foodborne illnesses.
Retailers and food service providers also play an important role in ensuring food safety, but most are exempted from FDA and USDA HACCP requirements even though they deliver finished products into the hands of consumers. Regulated by state and local authorities, this important segment of the continuum is increasingly turning to HACCP in response to business trends, greater awareness of potential risks, and regulatory changes at the state level, industry observers say. While broader HACCP adoption may eventually help improve food safety in stores and restaurants by providing them a time-tested framework, some observers also say it’s difficult to measure the net impact on consumer safety and the benefits to businesses that embrace it.
“Clearly people are moving in this direction if they haven’t already,” states Robert Gravani, a professor of food science at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. “Most people want to raise the bar; they’re not going to want to do just the minimum.”
A faculty member at Cornell’s department of food science, Gravani teaches HACCP principles to businesses through the university’s extension program. While anecdotal, there is evidence to show that more companies are expressing an interest in how HACCP can improve food safety at their stores and restaurants, he says. This rise, he points out, stems from the fact that many retailers offer a growing menu of fresh and prepared foods—through a traditional salad bar, a hot food stand, or even a sushi bar. For example, a visit to a Whole Foods supermarket is akin to a stop at a food court because it offers a variety of traditional and ethnic foods.
“Today the number of freshly prepared foods and menu items are just absolutely astounding and tremendous. There are eat-in restaurants within retail stores. There are a lot of foods available for carry out in a variety of places, so it makes great sense to apply the HACCP principles to the preparation and services of these foods,” Gravani points out.
This shift among retailers and concerns about the growing number of foodborne illnesses have the industry reviewing and stepping up their practices. After all, there is cause for concern. According to the Centers for Disease Control’s FoodNet, which tracks foodborne illnesses across the U.S., the number of confirmed cases rose sharply last year in two categories: Campylobacter and Vibrio. Most alarming was that the incidences of Campylobacter infection rose to the highest level since 2000 even as the rate of infection for STEC O157, Salmonella, and other major food-related illnesses remained unchanged. With high-profile outbreaks becoming a regular occurrence, many companies are concerned for their customers and their brands.
HACCP At A Glance
While HACCP is a way of life for many processors and manufacturers, those in food service and retail are less enlightened. That’s because the U.S. Food Code makes it a voluntary exercise for most retailers; however, the FDA has encouraged participation by issuing a HACCP manual for retail businesses entitled Managing Food Safety: A Manual for the Voluntary Use of HACCP Principles for Operators of Food Service and Retail Establishments. In this document, the agency does urge companies to “take a proactive role in ensuring that the food served or sold in your establishment is safe” by developing a HACCP plan.