For 30 years, Food Quality & Safety has chronicled some of the most significant advances in food safety, particularly in the field of microbiology. These advances took place in the lab, in the field or in the factory, and were led by some of the most knowledgeable people of the time. They faced previously unknown challenges, chased unseen threats, and worked feverously until they found answers. More than anything, a handful of leaders in the meat industry had the vision to establish food safety as a noncompetitive issue, a tenet followed by the entire food industry to this day.
New challenges will always test our food safety systems, and the leaders of the past taught us that the programs and policies that protect food safety must be flexible and readily adapted to meet them. Challenges such as a rapidly changing food supply chain during a pandemic or addressing infant formula shortages due to reduced production caused by bacterial contamination were covered in FSMA regulations or overcome by cooperation with FDA. That’s not to say we are now perfect, but we’re learning more and more how to apply the core principles in critical food safety situations.
All Experts Aren’t Created Equal
As we acknowledge the leaders who came before, we must also acknowledge the real heroes of food safety. They aren’t named. They aren’t remembered anywhere. They are the thousands of frontline workers that practice food safety every day. They are the essential workers who showed up every day during the peak of the pandemic. They are also the select few who stepped up to work on the food safety team. The hours are tough, the manufacturing conditions are often brutal, but they stick it out and do the job. They ensure that policies and procedures are followed and don’t hesitate to report when something goes wrong. They care about protecting consumers and take pride in product safety.
They do this from facilities located on the outskirts of cities and small towns across the country, in aging factories filled with old equipment and crumbling infrastructure. They often have limited resources and only the minimal training necessary to meet regulatory requirements. The internet provides some help, but they often find contrasting solutions. A lucky few get to attend food safety meetings and conferences to seek expert help, but they may or may not find the answers they seek. Food production facilities vary wildly in age, layout, and conditions, and food products vary in risk level so finding exact solutions is nearly impossible. A minor change in facts can have disastrous effects on the outcomes. They proceed with caution, knowing that they don’t know how much they don’t know. They ask for advice at every opportunity.
This is a good time to remind everyone that food safety experts are not created equally, and good intentions will not protect you from bad advice. To emphasize this point, the Jensen Farms cantaloupe recall in 2011 was responsible for one of the deadliest Listeria outbreaks in the U.S. Bad advice from an expert and a poorly executed third party audit were a lethal combination that resulted in a deadly outbreak that accounted for at least 33 deaths and 147 cases across 28 states.
FDA officials investigating the Jensen event found four strains of Listeria on dirty, corroded equipment, recently purchased second hand on the recommendation of an “expert.” Previously used for potato farming, the “equipment’s past use may have played a role in the contamination” according to the government’s final report. There was no clear evidence it was even cleaned before it was placed in the line. The use of sanitizer in the wash water, a process in use before this renovation, had been discontinued for some unknown reason. The fruit wasn’t being precooled, creating humid, damp conditions in the cooler that supported Listeria growth. This hardly sounds like an operation under the management of a food safety expert.