The next time you make a quick stop for a hamburger, take the family out for dinner at a nice restaurant, or run into the supermarket for salad greens and a pre-cooked chicken for dinner on a busy day, think for a moment about the food on your table. How safe is it to eat?
It’s a question most patrons of restaurants and fast food joints never worry about. They assume their food is quite safe. But professionals working in the retail food industry know constant vigilance is needed. “Most people just trust that the people on the other side of the counter or working in the food industry are doing a good job,” says Steven R. Davis of the Retail Food Alliance (RFA; Florence, Ore.). Fortunately, that trust is usually well placed.
The fact that consumers have such faith in the nation’s food supply is testimony to the daily vigilance of both the government, which develops food handling standards, and the food industry, which must carry them out. It is an important partnership. On the government’s side, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is in charge of nearly a million restaurants and food service operations and more than 114,000 supermarkets and grocery stores. It promulgates standards for all foods, with the exception of meat, poultry, and some egg products, which are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
But the daily hands-on safety of our retail food supply ultimately depends upon those who handle and prepare it. Teaching those millions of food handlers how to prepare food safely requires more than a set of government standards. It also calls for a way to teach those standards to a diverse and ever-changing retail food industry workforce.
This task has become even more important as national eating habits have changed. Fewer and fewer meals are cooked at home. Consumers would rather eat out—or bring ready-to-eat food home. Pre-washed salads and pre-cut fruits are big sellers, as are pre-cooked, take-out meals. Half of the nation’s food dollars are spent on such convenience and deli foods.
Ensuring Food Safety
Given those facts, ensuring the safety of our food supply is vital. The costs of unsafe food—both medical and economic—can be enormous. An estimated 76 million cases of foodborne illness occur every year in the United States. In 2007, there were 300 cases of illness caused by contaminated peanut butter, which sent 50 people to the hospital. Contaminated spinach caused 206 illnesses, more than 100 hospitalizations, and three deaths. Most foodborne illnesses are caused by pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, or parasites. Some are caused by toxins or poisons, such as insecticides or pesticides on food. Each instance of foodborne disease underscore how dependent our food supply is upon good hygienic practices.
Food safety can be summed up in its most simple form as “buying safe food, handling it at safe temperatures, and using good personal hygiene,” says Colleen Thompson, MS, RD, a registered dietitian at the University of Connecticut. She is using a USDA grant to develop a nationwide online safety course for food workers based on the standards set out by the FDA and USDA.
The “model standards,” the latest version of which is encompassed in the 2007 Food Code, are meant to provide guidance for food safety in the retail industry. They include everything from rules for proper washing, handling, and disinfecting to regulations for proper temperatures for cooking, holding, storing, and refrigerating various foods. But the FDA and USDA do not directly enforce these standards. The actual enforcement responsibility for food safety in restaurants, fast food establishments, and supermarkets falls to state and local health departments with their own regulatory, inspection, and enforcement powers.