Over $93 billion a year. That, according to a new Ohio State University study published in the Journal of Food Protection, is the estimated cost of foodborne illness in the U.S. alone. This doesn’t look at the cost to industry, but rather it considers the cost to treat those affected by these illnesses.
What concerns those in the food industry most about staggering estimates like this is the increased scrutiny it brings from policy makers. In fact, the author of the study, Robert Sharff, hopes that his data, which looks at foodborne illness on a state-by-state basis, will “give policymakers a tool to determine whether a particular intervention they’re using makes sense.”
Increasing pressure from regulators is only part of the story for the food industry. According to “Food Safety in a Globalized World,” a study done by global reinsurer Swiss Re, “52 percent of all food recalls cost affected U.S. companies more than $10 million each and losses of more than $100 million are possible.” These estimates exclude any costs of reputational damage, so the ultimate number is much larger.
The significant costs of recalls and more onerous regulatory oversight are enough to justify even greater rigor for labs operating inside food manufacturers. But there’s an obvious drawback to thinking only about recalls and other risks when outfitting and running a food industry lab—this is, after all, a for-profit business. Labs must balance their critical safety net role with a business imperative to drive higher and higher productivity and eke out larger margins wherever possible.
From a food safety and quality standpoint, there are many fail points within a typical food manufacturer that must be understood and closely tracked. This can quickly become overwhelming, and many labs soon become known for their bottlenecks instead of their benefits. From the way they accept raw materials to batch release speed, labs can have an outsized influence on production speed and efficiency.
The potential for labs to disrupt manufacturing productivity can put them squarely in management’s crosshairs, which is why it’s so important to leave nothing to chance, even the smallest process step. Yes, there’s significant pressure to meet regulatory requirements, such as ISO 22000 and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, and the specter of a recall is ever-present, but the answer isn’t to slow operations to a more manageable crawl. That simply isn’t an option.
The modern food industry lab must cast a wider net when it comes to safety and quality fail points, but technology can ensure that this happens with increasing alacrity. This isn’t accomplished by relaxing standards and letting more pass by. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: the best approach is to break down all the fail points, account for them in software and manage as if even the most insignificant problem could snowball into a costly issue.
While there are many places that labs could begin as they look for common fail points, three isolated common areas where an ounce of prevention could yield a pound of cure are inventory, standard operation procedures (SOPs), and traceability. These areas may seem obvious, but few labs approach them with the rigor believed is necessary, so let’s explore them in greater detail.
Culture media, reagents, and even vials for gas chromatographs—just some of the everyday items in a food lab that often go out of stock. But why? Most labs operate fairly routinely, running the same workflow test after test with a normal cadence. It shouldn’t be difficult to manage rotating stock with that information at your fingertips.
The problem is that it’s not always at the fingertips. Inventory may not even be tracked electronically, so what looks to be in stock may actually be unavailable. This isn’t something you want to learn as the product team is eagerly awaiting your approval to release a batch. Perhaps the batch is held, which stalls production altogether, or batches move through but eventually need to be discarded. In either case, a seemingly mundane issue—can’t/don’t track inventory in real time—jeopardizes productivity, and, in this case, blame falls squarely on the lab.