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.
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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.”