Perhaps poutine is your thing, that ubiquitous Canadian fast food dish featuring French fries and cheese curds topped with light brown gravy. Maybe you take to tacos, tamales, and enchiladas, those iconic staples of Mexican cuisine. You could have an affinity for the all-American favorites, hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, and mom’s apple pie à la mode.
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Your personal preferences aside, these culinary delights are all popular mainstays in three wildly different countries that share three undeniable commonalities. They are friendly neighbors, they are important food trade partners, and they are devoted to food safety.
O Canada / Ô Canada
The Canadian food safety system is a mature one, where the shared responsibility paradigm between industry, consumers and government oversight is well illustrated, says Samuel Godefroy, PhD, professor of food risk analysis and regulatory systems with University Laval’s Faculty of Agriculture and Food Sciences in Québec, Canada and formerly (2009 to 2015) director general of Health Canada’s Food Directorate, Canada’s federal food standard setting body.
Dr. Godefroy is quick to mention a consumer survey conducted in 2010, where a representative sample of Canadians indicated that witnessing a higher number of recalls (during 2009 and 2010) for them was more conducive to having a higher level of trust in the country’s food safety system rather than the opposite.
“This demonstrates that the Canadian food system was, in fact, working,” Dr. Godefroy asserts. “When consumers achieve this level of understanding with such an overwhelming majority, it is telling as to the level of maturity achieved.”
Without question, Canada, population 35,749,600, is a world powerhouse, not just in ice hockey, but where a food safety system should be expected to thrive. With its 10 provinces and three territories extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific and northward into the Arctic Ocean, the land of the maple leaf covers 3.85 million square miles, making it the world’s second-largest country by total area (after Russia) and the fourth-largest country by land area, not to mention the largest country in North America. Canada’s common border with the U.S. forms the world’s longest land border.
Dr. Godefroy says several factors contribute to the trustworthiness of the food safety system north of the U.S. border.
“For starters, Canada’s food safety system has been under regular review with the purpose of updating it and strengthening it,” he begins. “The recent food safety events either at the international level, especially the 2008 melamine contamination issues related to dairy products and other food fraud scandals in various parts of the world; or at the domestic level, XL Foods’ 2012 massive beef recalls and the 2008 listeriosis outbreak, are still in the memory of Canadian consumers, producers, and regulators alike. As a result, there has been more emphasis on enhancing the food safety system in the country through major government investments, but also through added emphasis by the food industry itself to instill and maintain a food safety culture.”
Another illustration, Dr. Godefroy says, is a 2014 assessment conducted by University of Guelph researchers, led by Sylvain Charlebois, PhD, who identified Canada’s food safety system in the top ranking of food safety systems globally, based on a robust standard setting environment and on a risk-based approach.
“Moreover, Canada’s food regulatory agencies have been subjected to a number of reviews and audits, the latest of which was a 2013 Auditor General report that reviewed the country’s food recall systems,” Dr. Godefroy continues. “As a result of these reviews and audits, a number of actions have been undertaken to modernize the system and address shortcomings. This constant review and update process is considered one of the strengths of the system.”
Add to that, Dr. Godefroy says, Canada’s food safety legislation was subjected to recent updates, with an amendment to Canada’s Food and Drugs Act and the development of a new legislation under the name of Safe Food for Canadians Act.
“This latter legislation constitutes a major overhaul of the Canadian food legislative landscape with a consolidation of the various federal acts under which food is managed,” Dr. Godefroy points out. “Regulatory provisions under this legislation are still to be developed.”
Like the U.S.’s FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), the new Canadian legislation and subsequent regulatory provisions are to focus on preventive measures taken by industry to manage and mitigate food risks during production from farm to table, Dr. Godefroy explains.
“This overhaul will result in major enhancements and clarification of regulatory requirements associated with food production,” he says. “In parallel, Canada’s food inspection agency, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, has embarked on a major food inspection modernization process aiming to create a more uniform approach to inspect and enforce food safety legislations and regulations. Until recently, the system was disproportionately putting emphasis on meat and poultry and was relying on a commodity-based approach.”
While these changes will likely result in major simplification, modernization, and improvements of the country’s food regulatory system, some challenges remain, Dr. Godefroy relates.
“Fragmentation of regulatory requirements, which make a distinction between foods crossing provincial boundaries versus those that are sold within one single province, continues to be an issue,” he says. “According to the new proposed rules, the enhanced regime would only apply to the former category of foods. Foods sold within the boundaries of a single province are only subject to general rules under the Food and Drugs Act and provincial requirements. They would therefore not be subject to the application of the ‘preventive measures’ paradigm. Similarly, it will be important that the application of preventive controls and the way this is verified be commensurate with the size and importance of the food establishment. Such details of the development and application of the regulatory provisions are therefore still to be worked out.”
Also, in an environment of scarce resources, there continues to be fragmentation and dispersion of efforts, between the various levels of governments and between agencies within a single level of government overseeing food, Dr. Godefroy adds.
“For example, the risk assessment and standard setting mandate is shared between Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, resulting in the need to rely on complex governance mechanisms and major efforts of coordination that add pressure on existing resources, all in a constrained environment,” he explains. “There are a number of opportunities for improvement in integrating efforts and maximizing the use of resources, such as the consideration of a single food standards authority. This would simplify the system for industry, for consumers, and for the agencies themselves.”
As far as thematic priorities are concerned, Dr. Godefroy says Canada’s food safety system is challenged by the same drivers of change as what are witnessed internationally. These include:
- Applying a preventive approach through the development of guidance to identify, prevent, and/or mitigate hazards and associated risks during all phases of food production.
- Identification and management of emerging pathogens (resulting from climate change or other drivers) and occurrence of known pathogens in new food sources/vehicles.
- Continued importance of managing risks associated with allergens in food processing, without the reliance on the propagation of allergen precautionary statements on food labels.
- Multiplication of food chemical risks from known and emerging sources (environmental contamination, natural contaminants such as mycotoxins and phycotoxins, process induced chemicals) and their management in a changing environment influenced by changes in climate and food production patterns globally.
- The emergence and propagation of antibiotic-resistant pathogens from food sources and potentially linked to the administration of such drugs to food-producing animals.
- Applying the relevant risk-based approach to the management and administration of chemicals used in conjunction with food production such as packaging materials, processing aids, and other indirect additives such as sanitizers used in food production.
- The emergence of novel food formulations, which include a broader range of bioactive ingredients either extracted from other foods or from synthetic sources and added to foods as a vehicle of administration or to respond to consumer demand related to the development of functional foods. These foods have a different risk profile and currently face a system varying from either a vacuum of oversight or a too rigid environment unfavorable to product innovation.
“Canada’s food and agri-food production sector is amongst the most developed and prolific globally with a high throughput, given the sheer size of agricultural land and the vitality of the livestock sector,” Dr. Godefroy says. “Yet, Canada’s food processing sector has been shrinking, impacted by amongst other challenges, global consolidation.”
The development of innovative products is key to supporting the development of this sector, using the throughput of the primary production sector, Dr. Godefroy believes.
“Sectors such as pulse, oil seeds, and grain production continue to contribute to such innovation by creating new ingredients and new foods,” he notes. “A flexible, nimble, and agile food safety regulatory system will be imperative to support such developments, including a robust presence in international food standard development forum, in view of the importance of international market access for these products.”
Enhanced North American collaboration in creating added convergence in food regulatory provisions is also needed, Dr. Godefroy emphasizes.
“Given the level of integration of food production in North America, the ever-increasing complexity of scientific assessments to support robust risk management measures and to preserve consumer confidence, improved use of safety assessment resources to support the appropriate level of food safety oversight is definitely needed,” he says.
“In this context, and while achieving a single set of food standards in North America seem to be a distant dream, does it still make sense to have different Canadian and American scientific assessments of the same product using the same scientific methodologies, the same techniques, and sometimes even the same data?” Dr. Godefroy asks.
“The time may have come to consider the creation of a single food safety risk assessment authority for Canada and the United States,” Dr. Godefroy purports, “pooling the best of the scientific resources dedicated to this area and providing advice to food safety regulators in both countries.”
This would not impede the ability of each country to develop its own set of food standards, based on its own policy and risk management considerations, but at least the reliance on scientific assessments would be consistent and streamlined, he notes.
“This is without speaking of the importance and weight that such assessments would have on the international stage, positioning North America as a center of excellence of science-driven food safety oversight,” Dr. Godefroy emphasizes. “If Europe with its far more diverse population and its 28 countries did it, why can’t our two countries with their decades of food safety and food regulatory cooperation achieve this goal?”
And what about including Mexico in any possible North American regulatory collaboration?
“With the relevant efforts of coordination and capacity building, I would think that it would be the natural subsequent step once Canada and the U.S. manage to agree to move in that direction and implement the idea,” Dr. Godefroy says.
Southern Ally/Aliado al Sur
Every growing season, thousands of trucks, nearly 200,000 trucks, cross the border from Mexico into the U.S. to deliver more than 3 million metric tons of luscious fresh fruits and vegetables to U.S. markets, according to Cristóbal Chaidez, PhD, a food safety research scientist focusing on microbial contamination of food, water, and the environment, and director of the National Food Safety Research Laboratory of the Centro de Investigación en Alimentación y Desarrollo (Research Center in Food and Development), a government agency based in Culiacán, Mexico.
Among Mexico’s 2014 top 10 exports, vegetables (the only food item on the list) ranked tenth, and were valued at $5,497,363,000, according to worldstopexports.com.
Not surprisingly, a whopping 60 percent of Mexico’s agricultural exports go to the U.S. Along with iconic chili peppers of assorted varieties, edible export products from South of the border include coffee, corn, and,wheat, plus the aforementioned array of tropical fruits and various winter fruits and vegetables.
“Fresh produce from Mexico has the potential to meet most of the growing global demand for fruit and vegetable products,” Dr. Chaidez boasts. “However, the globalization of the food supply may introduce new food safety risks and the potential widespread dissemination of contaminated food.”
Several pre- and post-harvest factors can contribute to the presence of microbial pathogens on fresh produce, Dr. Chaidez points out, including irrigation water, soil, feces, insects, composted manure, wild and domestic animals, and human handling.
“The presence of Salmonella remains a major cause of detention and rejection by the U.S. of shipments of Mexican fresh produce,” Dr. Chaidez elaborates. “A large multi-state Salmonella outbreak involving peppers and tomatoes sickened over 1,535 people in 2008. Salmonella Saintpaul was the causative agent of this outbreak, and it was isolated from Serrano and jalapeño peppers from two packinghouses in Tamaulipas, Mexico. Since then, the U.S. FDA has documented a number of different commodities in Mexico contaminated with Salmonella species, including cucumbers, jalapeño peppers, serrano peppers, papaya, spinach, mangoes, and coriander.”
Other important microbial issues are recently arising in Mexico, such as the presence of Cyclospora on cilantro, Dr. Chaidez notes.
Relative to quality issues, one of the biggest challenges Mexican produce growers face is weather extremes, especially frost, drought, and torrential rain damage, he says. “These extremes are expected to become ever more frequent and unpredictable in major production zones,” Dr. Chaidez purports. “Thus, pests and disease remain a major problem for Mexican growers.”
Covering more than 760,000 square miles, Mexico is the fifth largest country in the Americas by total area and the 13th largest independent nation in the world. With an estimated population of some 125.5 million, it is the 11th most populous and the most populous Spanish-speaking country in the world, and the second most populous country in Latin America. Mexico is a federation comprising 31 states and a Federal District, its capital and largest city.
According to Dr. Chaidez, who in addition to conducting research, serves as a consultant in Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) systems for the fresh produce and processed food industry, a key strength of the Mexican food system as it impacts the quality and safety of food produced in Mexico is national institutions such as the country’s National Service for Health, Food Safety and Agricultural Food Quality (Servicio Nacional de Sanidad, Inocuidad y Calidad Agroalimentaria, SENASICA).
Mexican government efforts are focused on implementing and applying GAP, GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices), and HACCP throughout the food chain, Dr. Chaidez relates.
“SENASICA is putting in place an initiative named Contamination Risk Reduction System from initial production through to the packing and transportation of fruits and vegetables,” he says. “This initiative is focused on reducing the risk of contamination during fruit and vegetable production and covers 16 elements, including company registration, business history, water use, hygienic practices, traceability, fertilization, and damage to wildlife, among others.”
Dr. Chaidez mentions that the “Mexico Calidad Suprema” (“Mexico Supreme Quality”) program is an official brand identification that guarantees quality and safety of the Mexican products under this brand. “This label seeks the identification of products that comply with several regulations,” he explains, “namely Mexican Official Norms (NOM), Mexican Norms (NMX), and international rules, all in a confident and transparent system for the benefit of producers, packers, distributors, and consumers.”
Other official efforts are the ones established by federal (SENASICA) and state authorities (Government of Baja California), Dr. Chaidez says. “Both agencies enforced the implementation of the green onion protocol based on FDA guidelines,” he mentions.
A big plus in the world of Mexican produce is that growers are organized, Dr. Chaidez says. “The industry effort to maintain the safety and credibility of their brands took them to develop and implement food safety programs on their own,” he points out. “A major example is Eleven Rivers, an initiative of Sinaloa growers to meet the responsibility of offering consumers fresh, healthy, safe, and sustainable products.”
Established in 2009, Eleven Rivers seeks to change the perception of the consumer and ensure accountability and security of Mexican horticultural products, Dr. Chaidez says.
“Eleven Rivers is open to all producers affiliated with the Confederación de Asociaciones Agrícolas de Sinaloa, so that they participate and obtain the benefits of the program,” he relates. “The program is designed to implement, verify, and apply a certification scheme in food safety through a periodic review by independent bodies, oriented towards ensuring consumer health; but also promoting the systematization of safe food production processes in the food chain, with social and environmental responsibility.”
Eleven Rivers strives to achieve a differentiated produce supply in the market, based on the highest standards demanded by consumers, buyers, and authorities. To that end, Dr. Chaidez says Eleven Rivers is focused on becoming an important label and a food safety reference in Mexico and worldwide, as reflected in a market and consumer preference for the certified product.
“In the Eleven Rivers regulatory scheme, companies certify their modules of agriculture production, packing, and shelter facilities,” he explains. “This scheme is not only focused on food safety, but it also seeks to comply with the best industry practices, including process quality, traceability and corporate responsibility. Participating growers agree to be subject to a seasonal certification, and weekly compliance verification, conducted by independent certification, and verification organizations.”
FSMA will have an impact on the fresh produce industry, Dr. Chaidez adds. “One of the biggest destinations for Mexican fresh produce is the U.S. market, and if growers do not meet the FSMA requirements, they’ll just lose that opportunity,” he emphasizes.
As FSMA functions as a mandatory food safety risk reduction system, Mexican produce growers need to include in their operations the following items, Dr. Chaidez says.
- Designing public policies to correct or minimize risks.
- Tracing the origin and causes of microbial contamination.
- Determining the genetic fingerprint, to know whether is endemic or external.
- Characterizing pathogens and times of the year in which they occur.
- Regulations for mandatory food safety practices.
Science-Based Support, Por Favor
Dr. Chaidez is quick to point out that some aspects of the Mexican produce industry definitely need improvement.
“Comparison of foodborne pathogens isolated from fresh produce and the environment, and from produce-associated human infections, infers that pathogens may differ markedly in their potential to infect humans,” he begins. “The acquisition of further data on this aspect would inform potential future quantitative risk assessments and also inform hygiene controls and pathogens standards for fresh produce.”
The current dose response curves are determined using a variety of other foods, Dr. Chaidez continues. “Studies on dose response using fresh produce as the matrix using environmental isolates from foods and dose response information from outbreak data would be useful for quantitative risk assessments,” he believes. “Also, the application of more precise tools such as whole genome sequencing will help to identify the source of an outbreak far more quickly and prevent additional cases,” he says.
These advanced technologies will help growers to more quickly match bacteria from environmental samples with their database, he believes.
“The Mexican government and produce growers need to undertake more science-based studies to better understand microbial pathogens,” Dr. Chaidez advises. “The benefits of science-based support can definitely help our growers, ultimately by more productivity reaching better market niches.”
Stars and Stripes Status
As is the case with Mexico, produce safety issues are no small concern in the U.S.
The three main food safety issues impacting the U.S. today are produce, imported foods and bacterial contamination of high fat foods, according to Michael Doyle, PhD, the regents professor of food microbiology and director of the Center for Food Safety at the University Georgia, Griffin, GA.
“One-third of the outbreaks of foodborne illnesses in the U.S. during the past five years, according to the U.S. CDC, are linked to contaminated produce,” Dr. Doyle asserts.
On the “List of Selected Outbreak Investigations, by Year” posted on the CDC’s website, there are 54 outbreaks listed for 2011 through 2015 as of August 28, 2015, and of these, it appears some 19, or 35 percent, are attributed to fresh produce products.
Of these specific cases, the most notable is arguably the 2011 outbreak of listeriosis traced to cantaloupes from Colorado. Thirty-three people died, making it the second deadliest recorded U.S. foodborne disease outbreak since the CDC began tracking outbreaks in the 1970s. (Ranking number one is the 1985 California outbreak of listeriosis attributed to queso fresco, which accounted for a reported 52 deaths or perhaps even more.)
“Produce safety is a real challenge,” Dr. Doyle emphasizes. “As Dr. Chaidez says, we know the principal sources of contamination in the field are water, manure, wildlife, and harvesters (the people doing the harvesting), which are a challenge for producers.”
Compounding all this, Dr. Doyle predicts, with the drought in California, the U.S. will soon lose produce growers to other parts of the world. “FSMA will raise the bar on domestic produce safety, as long as its implemented and carried out,” he adds. “But a major concern is that FSMA will not have control of the safety of produce coming in from other countries, especially other countries not committed to food safety.”
Imported foods in general, especially ingredients like spices, are an ongoing food safety concern, Dr. Doyle continues.
“Lots of ingredients in processed foods can be contaminated with Salmonella but they are typically hard to pick up in foodborne illness outbreaks,” he says. “An FDA survey of spices between 2007 and 2009 showed that 6.6 percent of untreated spices were positive for Salmonella, and 3 percent of spices treated to kill Salmonella were still positive.”
Sadly, some of the most popular and widely consumed, albeit high fat, foods in the U.S. can be guilty of harboring pathogens and causing illness with ease, Dr. Doyle points out, citing lip smacking goodies like peanut butter, ice cream, and chocolate.
“The fat protects the bacteria from the acid in the stomach, and since they are protected, a smaller dose, as few as 10 to 100 cells, is required to cause illness,” Dr. Doyle explains.
The beautiful rainbow gracing the stormy skies of U.S. food safety issues, Dr. Doyle says, is the country’s advanced and exemplary foodborne disease outbreak surveillance capabilities.
“The United States, I believe, is far ahead of the rest of the world in foodborne disease outbreak surveillance,” he emphasizes. “Even if others fault us for so many foodborne illness outbreaks, because we have a state-of-the-art surveillance system, we are head and shoulders above the rest of the world.”
Driving these surveillance capabilities, Dr. Doyle says, is the CDC’s PulseNet USA system.
Established in 1996, PulseNet is a national laboratory network comprised of 87 public health and regulatory (FDA and USDA) laboratories, at least one in each state. PulseNet connects foodborne illness cases together to detect and define outbreaks using DNA “fingerprinting” of the bacteria making people sick using pulsed-field gel electrophoresis and multiple locus variable number tandem repeat analysis.
PulseNet tracks what is being reported to CDC today compared to what was reported in the past to look for changes. As a result, PulseNet keeps a cumulative database representing nearly half a million isolates of bacteria from food, the environment, and human foodborne illness.
Detection capabilities of PulseNet include subtypes of E. coli O157 and other Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, Clostridium botulinum, Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella, Shigella, Vibrio cholerae, Vibrio parahaemolyticus, and Cronobacter. (Note: Clostridium botulinum is considered a select agent and, as such, follows different handling procedures than other pathogens covered by PulseNet.)
Since the creation of PulseNet in 1996, more than one-half billion pounds of contaminated food have been recalled due, in part, to PulseNet activities.
Dr. Doyle is quick to point out that PulseNet has revolutionized the detection and investigation of foodborne disease outbreaks, especially in multiple sites across the country which, before PulseNet, often went undetected or were detected only after they grew very large.
“PulseNet, in collaboration with FDA’s GenomeTrakr, is rapidly adopting whole genome sequencing as its next generation fingerprinting method,” Dr. Doyle says. “This will enable more rapid detection of outbreaks, as well as increasing CDC’s ability to identify outbreaks having only a few cases, and enabling FDA to better track outbreaks back to their source.”
What’s more, the success of PulseNet USA inspired the formation of its collaborator, PulseNet International, which now spans some 82 member countries in Canada, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia Pacific, the Middle East, and Africa; and includes some 126 laboratories.
Whole Genome Sequencing
Dr. Doyle greatly appreciates all the benefits the landmark tool whole genome sequencing offers for solving foodborne illness puzzles and mysteries.
“Sequencing allows scientists to trace pathogens right to the source,” he says. “One recent example is the Salmonella contamination of frozen raw scraped ground tuna that infected 425 people in 28 states in 2012 and was traced to India. The genome sequencing led to this discovery.”
Whole genome sequencing reveals the complete DNA makeup of an organism, enabling scientists to better understand variations both within and between species. This in turn facilitates the differentiation between organisms with a precision that other technologies do not allow.
Having utilized whole genome sequencing since 2008, FDA says on its website that it is using this technology to perform basic foodborne pathogen identification during foodborne illness outbreaks and applying it in novel ways that have the potential to help reduce foodborne illnesses and deaths over the long term, both in the U.S and abroad.
With its ever-decreasing cost and continually increasing speed, genome sequencing is used to identify pathogens isolated from food or environmental samples. Dr. Doyle concurs that these can then be compared to clinical isolates from patients. According to FDA, if the pathogens found in the food or food production environment match the pathogens from the sick patients, a reliable link between the two can be made, which helps define the scope of a foodborne illness outbreak.
This type of testing has traditionally been done using methods such as pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE), but there are some strains of Salmonella spp. that PFGE is unable to differentiate. FDA explains that whole genome sequencing performs the same function as PFGE but has the power to differentiate virtually all strains of foodborne pathogens, no matter what the species. Its ability to differentiate between even closely related organisms thus allows outbreaks to be detected with fewer clinical cases and provides the opportunity to stop outbreaks sooner and avoid additional illnesses.
However, FDA asserts the most promising and far-reaching public health benefit may come from pairing a foodborne pathogen’s genomic information with its geographic location and applying the principles of evolutionary biology to determine the relatedness of the pathogens. That’s because, FDA explains, the genomic information of a species of foodborne pathogen found in one geographic area is different than the genomic information of the same species of pathogen found in another area.
Knowing the geographic areas that pathogens are typically associated with can be a powerful tool in tracking down the root source of contamination for a food product, especially multi-ingredient food products whose ingredients come from different states or countries, FDA notes.
Obviously, as FDA points out, the faster public health officials can identify the source of contamination, the faster the harmful ingredient can be removed from the food supply and the more illnesses and deaths that can be averted.
To realize this goal, FDA is spearheading an international effort to build a network of laboratories that can sequence the genomes of foodborne pathogens and then upload the genomic sequence of the pathogen and the geographic location from which the pathogen was gathered into a publicly accessible database. As the size of the database grows, it’s anticipated that so will its strength as a tool to help focus and speed investigations into the root cause of illnesses.
“The power of our surveillance system will be even better in next few years,” Dr. Doyle predicts. “With continued advances in whole genome sequencing, including more organisms from food processing facilities and products in the database, the system will become even more sensitive and robust, enabling the FDA and USDA to be able to do more detailed trace back to any field or plant that is the source of contamination.
“If any stakeholders have not picked up on what our surveillance system can do, they are in for a rude awakening in the future,” Dr. Doyle continues. “New surveillance technologies will be a real challenge for these companies. Any companies that are slack with their food safety standards should be aware that if they have a contamination problem, they are likely to get caught. They need to realize that you either pay now or you pay later if you are not on top of food safety.”
Food recalls are one of the biggest food safety issues in the U.S. right now, says Pam Coleman, MBA, vice president of research services for Mérieux NutriSciences, Chicago, Ill. “We still have huge, devastating recalls and they always seem to be a surprise, even though some of these contamination issues seem to have gone on for years,” she relates. “For as much effort as we’ve put into food safety in the United States, some serious blemishes remain. We’re a developed country, yet we have these black marks on our resume.”
There were 25 recalls in the U.S. between August 5, 2015 and August 31, 2015 alone, as per http://www.recalls.gov/food.html.
Touting itself as the biggest food micro testing operation in the U.S., and third largest relative to analysis of nutrition, chemical contaminants, heavy metals, and pesticides, Mérieux NutriSciences operates 80 labs in some 20 countries, including 14 labs in the U.S., three in Canada and three in Mexico.
Armed with extensive academic and hands-on career bench work credentials in both biology and chemistry, Coleman currently oversees the company’s research services team, a group she explains is focused on helping clients answer their food related research questions encompassing food safety, food quality, sensory, and clinical research functions.
“We test raw ingredients, dairy, some produce, meat, poultry, FDA regulated products, grocery, mixes, canned, and frozen foods,” she mentions. “We serve thousands of companies of all sizes, including large ones with multiple facilities and small family start-ups. Our research projects are designed to enable new products to enter the market place with more safety and quality built in.”
Coleman believes a major strength of the U.S. food chain is the scrutiny of its meat and poultry, both raw and processed. “USDA has done a fantastic job of driving continued improvement in the reduction of Listeria in processed meats,” she says. “They have also developed increasingly more data driven micro baseline levels for the raw meat plants, holding plants accountable for the contamination levels of their products over the past 20 years.”
The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) collects samples of meat and poultry products to estimate the national prevalence and levels of bacteria of public health concern. Each report is a compilation of data obtained for a particular species or type of animal.
For example, FSIS conducted the first Raw Chicken Parts Baseline Survey (RCPBS) from January to August 2012.
The RCPBS was designed to determine the presence and the levels of selected bacteria on raw chicken parts produced in federally inspected plants. In addition, FSIS wanted to determine the national prevalence of Salmonella and Campylobacter on raw chicken parts.
Additional goals for this survey were determining if there was a significant difference between production shifts as they related to bacterial levels, and comparing the bacterial presence and levels on raw parts with skin-on versus parts with skin-off.
Relative to qualitative microbiological results, the Salmonella percent positive rate for chicken parts was 26.3 percent and 21.4 percent for Campylobacter.
Using data from this study, FSIS calculated national prevalence estimates for Salmonella and Campylobacter; specifically they calculated the prevalence or weighted average of Salmonella and Campylobacter for all chicken parts. (These national prevalence estimates are different from the percent positives because they are weighted in relation to production volume.)
The estimated national prevalence of Salmonella in chicken parts is 24.02 percent with a 95 percent confidence interval between 19.24 percent and 28.79 percent. The estimated national prevalence of Campylobacter in chicken parts is 21.70 percent with a 95 percent confidence interval between 18.70 percent and 24.69 percent.
“Having a known baseline level is step one to improvement in any process,” Coleman points out. “Now the challenge is clear and industry is responding with ways to reduce levels over time.”
When environmental monitoring came in vogue, it was viewed as a tool to help reduce the prevalent risks that are an issue in nearly every type of food plant, Coleman mentions. “But after years of running these programs, there is a tendency to react less and less to a few isolated positive results,” she says. “So while many companies have embraced environmental monitoring over the past 15 years or so, which is evidenced by the number of environmental swabs we receive to test daily in our laboratories, as an industry we need to figure out better ways to extract actionable information from the sporadic positives that many plants experience.”
“To that end, we are working along with other industry stakeholders to elevate environmental monitoring to the next level through progressive solutions, such as EnviroMap, helping to track and map specific organisms,” Coleman relates.
Will metagenomics techniques impact environmental testing in the future? “Environmental testing will likely be improved by the application of metagenomics techniques,” Coleman predicts, “but I think we have a ways to go to get a good practical application.”
Metagenomics is the study of genetic material recovered directly from environmental samples. The broad field may also be referred to as environmental genomics, ecogenomics, or community genomics.
There is more work to be done on tracking and investigating foodborne contamination with a focus on prevention of contamination and subsequent recalls, Coleman believes. “We recommend that companies use all of the available tools to uncover issues before a recall becomes necessary,” she notes. “If sporadic pathogen positives are found via an environmental monitoring plan, conducting selective finished product testing before shipping might be a good idea to verify the effectiveness of a specific remediation effort.”
What else will help any such efforts? “We need a way to look at all microorganisms in a sample and then use the information to track them,” Coleman says. “We need to be able to tell if this is the same system we saw last week or a new one. We need to determine how to get to the molecular level with bacterial diagnostics.”
It will take a proactive approach on the part of all food industry stakeholders to be more effective with bacterial monitoring, expansion of routine testing, and control, Coleman asserts.
“Companies offering laboratory services need to expand services to help food manufacturers, retailers, and restaurants get results in a more efficient, state-of-the art, user-friendly manner,” she advises. “Phone apps for iPhone and Android that allow busy food industry professionals a way to track lab testing results is something we’ve invested in. Adapting new analytical methods to food safety while also catering to smartphone communications preferences are two ways this company is striving to serve their clients.”
Robert Buchanan, PhD, director of the Center for Food Safety and Security Systems at the University of Maryland, College Park, Md., emphasizes that FSMA’s impact does not stop at the U.S. border since all the countries and companies that export to the U.S. will have to meet the requirements of the regulations.
That’s a noteworthy point, because another issue in the U.S., Dr. Buchanan says, is that more and more foods and ingredients are coming in from underdeveloped or developing countries.
“It’s good if these countries have an infrastructure that can handle food safety and food fraud issues, but we can’t count on that,” he relates. “If you think they are inspecting their products before they are shipped out, you need to think again. There definitely needs to be some way to manage these imports on our end. To that end, the new FSMA rules have multiple new requirements designed to improve our confidence in imported foods.”
Dr. Buchanan considers the U.S. taking the lead on new regulations a positive thing. “The regulations derived from FSMA seem to be paying a great deal of attention to ensuring that a level playing field does not favor certain segments of the food industry, such as small versus larger manufacturers, or domestic versus foreign manufacturers,” he says. “And fortunately, the drafters of the regulations also appear to be very careful about not hampering innovation. If we tamper with this ability, we reduce the potential for continuing improvement in our food supply.”
With FDA leading the way with new regulations, the USDA FSIS can be expected to follow at some point with regulatory reform, too, Dr. Buchanan predicts. “For example, as with FSMA, FSIS will likely have to deal with international trade issues to meet the U.S.’s obligations under the World Trade Organization Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures” he explains.
In terms of science having an effect on food safety, modern epidemiology has, in some instances, exceeded the ability to control pathogens in a number of foods, Dr. Buchanan asserts.
“With some of the recent diffuse outbreaks, the contamination rates exceeded the ability to detect the pathogen,” he points out. “It thus becomes a challenge to determine how much otherwise safe food we should throw away when pathogens are detected. As a result, one of the major challenges facing government, industry, and society in general is how do we reach a consensus of what is a tolerable level of risk before the next incremental increase in food safety becomes burdensome to society?”
It’s tough to get an agreement on a tolerable level of residual risk, Dr. Buchanan continues. “I’m all for risk assessments, but I’m not sure they are applied correctly,” he notes. “When developing new standards, they reflect the tolerable level of residual risk, whereas outbreaks typically involve a lack of compliance to a standard, a different risk based on reliability. In the debate over standards and performance, many of the participants do not fully understand the difference between compliance and residual risks.”
We still haven’t figured out what to do with dry products, Dr. Buchanan mentions, relative to risk assessment. “Consumers think dry products are sterile, but they are not,” he emphasizes. “So how do we get rid of Salmonella in flour, for example? Bread gets baked, but there are some uses for which flour doesn’t get baked. For instance, they often dust hot bread with raw flour.”
Fortunately, there are some new technologies coming out to help with that problem, Dr. Buchanan says, including macrowave treatments, and also new processing tools, such as improved thermal processing modeling.
Population Growth and Pathogens
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates point to the need to increase global food production by 60 percent by 2050 to feed a population that will top the 9 billion mark. (With more than 320 million people, the U.S. is currently the world’s third most populous country.)
Population growth is an additional challenge that can be expected to impact food safety in the years ahead, Dr. Buchanan predicts.
“We will continue to find new pathogens that are creating themselves, and as the human population increases, we are likely to see the emergence and rapid spread of new foodborne pathogens,” he explains. “To minimize these risks, we need to get the population of the world to level off. Furthermore, food growing and processing is a huge drain on water and energy. If we continue to use energy to ship food all over the world, we will ultimately reach a point where this cannot be sustained economically. So we definitely need more sustainable foods.”
Dr. Buchanan is quick to credit the federal acts that established the foundation of the U.S. food system. Research and Cooperative Extension programs involve interaction between government, agriculture, and food industries, which in turn generate new food products and processes that solve food safety and security problems, while enhancing productivity, he points out.
“This investment has paid massive dividends to the U.S. citizenry,” he says. “And despite decreases in government funding, we have been able to maintain a good food chain infrastructure in the U.S.”
Our system is based on three legs, government, industry, and academia, Dr. Buchanan notes. “In any country, having all of these three legs offers a tremendous advantage,” he says. “In contrast, in many countries academia plays a minor role in solving food safety problems, and those countries’ food safety status suffers. It is very important to continue to invest in our public/private partnerships if we are going to improve the safety and quality of our foods.”
A really great characteristic that is unique to the U.S. food system, Dr. Buchanan says, is that a single person can have tremendous positive impact, especially with regards to regulations. “If you have the scientific knowledge and the ability to communicate this effectively to the policy makers in the U.S., you can make a huge difference,” he emphasizes.
“We have an open process in the U.S. that allows citizens to provide their input into new or changing regulations, something that is not common in many parts of the world,” Dr. Buchanan says. “If you take advantage of the way regulations are developed, then you have the potential for influencing how we are governed. This is where the members of the academic community can play an increasing and important role in explaining the science underlying continuous improvement in food safety. ”
Trade Tidbits in North America
For information about food trade between Canada, Mexico, and the U.S., check out the following links: