Tracking Foodborne Illness

For decades, one of the major challenges in managing food recalls was the time it took for researchers to establish the source of the contamination.

In my time with Kroger, it was often frustrating when the company would receive a foodborne illness recall notice and begin the process of removing suspected product from store shelves and warehouses. As a result, recalls were often counched in tentative terms, like “suspected” or “possible,” because there wasn’t definitive proof of the actual cause.

That’s no longer the case. Advances in microbiology and data management now enable federal and state regulators to much more quickly uncover suspected food pathogens. Equally as important, these tools also help define the scope of recalls throughout the food chain, so that recall activity can be coordinated across the retail and wholesale supply network.

Here’s a link to an blog on Gale Prince’s SAGE Food Safety website that provides more details of this important and dramatic change in food recall management. Gale and I were friends and co-workers at The Kroger Co. for nearly two decades, and together we helped manage dozens of food recalls. We’ve learned a lot over the years, and — thankfully — the improvements we are witnessing today hold the promise of limiting costly recalls, and saving lives.


Defining A Foreseeable Hazard

A central tenet of the new food safety law is a responsbility for food manufacturers to thoroughly inspect their plant facilities to uncover “foreseeable hazards,” not otherwise defined.

Why is this important? We’ll, because over time, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has done enough plant inspections to understand that manyh food contamination incidents and recalls originate in production facilities, where harmful pathogens can lurk. It could be stagnant water, or the wrong spray lubricant on a bread pan, or a line worker with hepatitis.

Peanut ButterUnder the new law, acronym FSMA, manufacturers themselves must inspect their facilities, identify safety hazards, and then develop a food safety plan that includes step-by-step procedures to eliminate those hazards.

That’s a huge swing in the FDA’s regulatory philosophy. Heretofore, the agency focused on swift action after a food recall to limit consumer exposure. With FSMA, the emphasis is on preventive controls to eliminate safety risks before they fester into problems.

WIthout a doubt, managing food safety through preventive controls (and employee training) will be a costly new expense. The real concern of regulators and industry observers is not the major food brand, but the smaller-sized manufacturers.  Will they have the budget and the people to prevent contamination as an everyday management priority?

Only time will tell. But how that question is answered could make a difference in preventing food-borne illnesses or deaths.

More information on foreseeable hazards is here.


Wash Your Hands Right

If there’s one action virtually everyone on earth could do to reduce illness and the spread of infections, it’s washing your hands.

Now there’s a suggestion from the World Health Organization (WHO) that the way we’ve been taught to wash our hands is not nearly effective. Mainly, WHO says, no one washes their hands thoroughly. The UN organization believes that a good hand wash ought to take about 60 seconds, and be repeated several times during the day (more if you happen to work in a hospital or food production facility).

A couple of minutes out of your daily schedule doesn’t seem like too much to ask, does it? Start washing . . .

Here’s how:



Seafood for Thought

Given all that going on in the country today, it’s hardly surprising that a new law involving fish received little notice. But it should, and here’s why.

For years, a growing percentage of seafood imports to the United States — for both human consumption and animal feed — has come from Southeast Asia, Thailand in particular. The imported food captured American market share because it was cheaper and plentiful in comparison with U.S. seafood, which was more expensive and increasingly scarce.

OCEANS-master675Why was it cheaper?  Because the fish was caught using slave labor, most often young men kidnapped or tricked into working on fishing boats, but then chained to the vessel and denied all but the minimal basics of life. Those who could no longer do their jobs were often murdered, their bodies thrown overboard.

The world knew about this blatant crime against humanity for years, but little was done to stop the practice of slave labor. The product was, after all, cheap, which is what world commodity markets desire. Governments in Southeast Asia generally looked the other way, or undertook only meager enforcement efforts. The entire global food chain, involving food producers, unions that unloaded the sullied cargo, distributors and retailers, proceeded as if blinded by indifference. Not our problem was the mantra all along the food network.

Now things have changed, and it could just be that seafood harvested by slaves will soon disappear from retail refrigeration cases, cat food, and restaurant menus. Three causes for this salutary turn of events are responsible:

First, the U.S. government is taking strong action. The Obama Administration has approved legislation that bans the import of slave-caught seafood from Southeast Asia. A government agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced a plan this month to improve how seafood is tracked from catch to market, imposing new reporting requirements on American importers.

Second, human rights and anti-forced labor activiists have learned how to harness their outrage by using sound business principles to combat the ugly practice of sea slavery. Using the principle of “traceability,” more and more companies are putting in place data systems that enable them to know — with precision — where products are sourced, by whom, when and how.

Third, the news media, traditional as well as social, finally decided to shine a light on worker abuses in global food production. For too many years (and I speak from direct experience), reporters and editors seemed to yawn from indifference when confronted with  eyewitness evidence of abuses. But advocacy organizations (including the National Underground Railroad Center, where I worked and helped create the nation’s first permanent exhibition on modern-day slavery) kept pushing for attention and action. The results are everywhere evident in local TV and newspaper exposes of teenage sex slaves, and growing awareness that human trafficking was more than an isolated issue in third world countries, but rather a global crime phenomenon.

The problems of human rights abuses as blatant and horrible as sea slavery will not be fully abolished anytime soon. The concerted actions of global trade partners and nations to weed out crimes against humanity are really just underway. But it is clear, and welcome, that Thai boys chained to fishing boats is a scourge that is finally on its last legs.