Food safety management is constantly evolving—just when we feel we have it under control, something else crops up to alter the equation. A bit over 100 years ago, the canning industry thought that it understood how to properly can food safely. Botulism outbreaks attributed to black olives changed that and lead to the development of canning as a science thanks to persons like Dr. Karl Meyer and Dr. C. Olin Ball. The botulism outbreaks attributed to vichyssoise in 1971 lead to the establishment of low-acid canned food regulations in the United States. These regulations were based on those that were already in place in California.
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Yet another watershed year for food safety was 1985, during the the Listeria monocytogenes outbreak that was attributed to a soft-ripened cheese made with raw milk. This outbreak added Listeria to the list of significant food pathogens that the industry needed to control, which included updating analytical methods to quickly isolate and identify the organism.
Thirty years ago, Dr. Steve Taylor was a voice in the wilderness crying out that allergens were a significant food safety hazard that needed to be addressed. Today, allergen management is an integral part of most food processors’ food safety management systems. Allergens were also included in the preventive controls for human food regulations found in the Code of Federal Regulations, under 21 CFR Part 117, which mandates that processors establish programs to both keep undeclared allergens out of foods and properly label those that are in foods.
And the trend has continued throughout the world. Among the food safety issues that have cropped up are acrylamide in baked and fried foods, adulterants such as melamine in dairy foods, and bovine spongiform encephalopathy in beef. Food safety issues also are often complicated by consumer perceptions and misinformation on topics such as genetically engineered foods.
One of the new challenges in food safety will go hand-in-hand with the push for sustainability and a greener world. Many cities and some states have banned plastic bags at supermarkets to minimize plastic contamination. This means that consumers must now bring reusable bags to stores, which can be manufactured from many different materials including plastic and fibers like jute and cotton. This sounds like a great idea, but there have already been outbreaks attributed to cross-contamination from one bag to another. Think about it: You have a cotton grocery bag that you bring to the market. You load it up with groceries including chicken breasts. The chicken leaks and contaminates the bag. Will you wash that bag? Or will you not even notice the contamination?
And, we have another issue on the horizon: plastic. Hundreds of different foods are packaged in plastic, yet both land and sea plastic pollution are significant problems that are increasing daily. Plastic packaging is used because it’s safe and effective. But where do we go next? Can we replace plastic packaging and still ensure that foods remain safe? Or will we go back to metal or glass containers? Or will someone come up with a biodegradable container or material that will protect food but not react with it? Stay tuned…