Ensuring safe food is an important public health priority for our nation. For years, regulatory and industry food safety programs have focused on reducing the incidence of foodborne illness. Despite these efforts, however, the 1996 report, “Reinventing Food Regulations: National Performance Review,” concluded that foodborne illness caused by harmful bacteria and other pathogenic microorganisms in meat, poultry, seafood, dairy products, and a host of other foods is a significant public health problem in the United States.
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More than 11 years following the publication of that review, foodborne illness still remains a significant health problem. The food sector has experienced several types of significant adverse events over the past several years, including E. coli contamination of baby spinach in 2006 and a recall of products suspected to have caused botulism in 2007. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that 76 million people contract foodborne illnesses each year, both at home and while eating out. Each year, about 325,000 people are hospitalized—and an estimated 5,000 people die—because of food-acquired pathogens. With Americans now eating more than one-half of their meals outside of the home, foodborne illnesses and food safety have become very relevant concerns.
An area that has grown in importance following global terrorist attacks is intentional food contamination. It is possible for food products to be deliberately contaminated with a wide variety of chemical, biological, or radiological agents. But, despite the range of possible contaminating agents and the open vulnerability of many links in the food supply chain, there have been very few recorded cases of deliberate food contamination in the United States.
Contamination outbreaks are many times more likely to be caused by non-deliberate misuse of toxic cleaning or pest control agents, improper food storage, or poor personal hygiene practices. The industry would be grossly remiss, however, if it began to rely upon that historical safety, assuming it will continue into the future. In most cases, mortality (deaths) associated with unintentional contamination of the food supply is relatively low, but morbidity (illnesses) can be quite high. The selection of a more lethal agent in an intentional contamination could change high morbidity numbers to high mortality numbers.
While terrorism attacks on, and intentional contamination of, the food supply are grave concerns, the industry’s workforce itself may be its biggest threat. How can a food service operation ensure that its employees will not be a liability in the workplace?
Transient, Young Workforce
All sectors of the food industry invest both financial and human resources in preventing microbial pathogens, carcinogenic chemicals, and other harmful substances from entering their food products. While many invest in resources mandated through regulation, others choose an investment level that exceeds the regulated standard. Personnel are a key investment, representing a first-line defense against deliberate food tampering and unintentional contamination.
The post-harvest food industry accounts for 12% of the nation’s economic activity and employs between 10% and 18% of the American workforce. It consists of enormous subsectors, including processing, storage, transportation, retail, and food service—all of which have a broad geographic distribution. Statistics on just two of these subsectors serve to illustrate the magnitude of the sector as a whole.
The National Restaurant Association projects that the industry’s 925,000 domestic locations will achieve $537 billion in sales for 2007, serving over 70 billion “meal and snack occasions” for the year. The nation’s more than 34,000 supermarkets, 13,000 smaller food markets, 1,000 wholesale club stores, 13,000 convenience stores, and 28,000 gas station food outlets together generated $499.5 billion in 2006. Like the other segments that comprise the post-harvest food industry, these two subsector units also have broad geographic distribution.