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.


Chipotle’s Real Food Safety Problem

Chipotle’s string of bad luck may not be a food safety problem. It’s something far deeper, and unlikely to improve anytime soon — if ever.

With great fanfare, Chipotle has announced a brand new set of procedures to once and for all stop the stream of food illness outbreaks at its restaurants around the country.  Company executives boast that its actions represent the beginning of the end of its troubles.

There certainly is no shortage of culprits for Chipoltle’s fall from grace. As the fast food purveyor’s image for quality foods deteriorated over the summer and fall of 2015, many outside observers placed the blame on the company’s preference to source ingredients like lettuce, vegetables and the like from local farmers. This was a risky bet, the critics said, because local produce often wasn’t raised and processed with sufficient food safety procedures in place.

That’s largely been debunked, but then a new cause began circulating: Chipoltle’s competitors were sabotaging its supply chain with contaminated product. This, it was claimed, was retribution for Chipoltle’s industry-leading position refusing to use any ingredients that contained genetically modified organisms, or GMO’s.  So far, there’s been no proof of this allegation.

So, what was it? Plain bad luck as the company pleaded; a series of outbreaks that could happen to anyone in the restaurant business. According to the New York Times, Chipoltle pinned the outbreaks on “sick employees who ignored strict policies prohibiting them from coming to work and, without elaborating, said that disciplinary measures were meted out to those responsible.”

Chipoltle might want to reconsider making such a claim. Like virtually all other fast food chains, Chipotle relies on part-time minimum wage workers to assemble the burritos and other menu items along a fast-moving service line in the company’s 2,000 outlets nationwide.  The need for speed, to move hungry customers through the line, and the need for each outlet to maximize sales while minimizing costs, means that employee food safety training will necessarily be a secondary priority.

And there’s little reason to think this will change. The fast food business model is rooted in low-cost labor and unavoidable rapid turnover especially on the “front line,” where employees interact with customers. The data is worth considering.  According to the National Restaurant Association:

The overall turnover rate in the restaurants-and-accommodations* sector was 66.3 percent in 2014, up 10 percentage points from the recent low of 56.6 percent in 2010.

Despite the increase, the turnover rate remains relatively low in historical terms. In 2007, prior to the economic downturn, the turnover rate of the restaurants-and-accommodations sector was 80.9 percent. This was generally on par with turnover in the previous five years (2002-2006), when the annual rate averaged 80 percent.

Training this rapidly changing work force is not only a headache but an aggravating cost factor. The pressure to keep labor costs in line is especially an overriding priority for publicly-held chains, which must satisfy investors each business quarter.

Little wonder, then, that fast food chain workers end up with not much more than a superficial understanding of the basics of food safety, such as proper food temperatures, the presence of harmful food microorganisms, and how food-borne illness can spread.  For many, the warning sign in the bathrooms that “employees must wash their hands” is essentially the extent of their food safety training.

Chipoltle’s turnaround plans don’t specifically mention this problem. The company is focusing on insuring that supplies are carefully washed, safely packaged, and handled with utmost care. All wise and necessary steps.

But until Chipotle and its many competitors can find a way to train their temporary, transitory work force, food illness outbreaks will not be a thing of the past, as Chipotle fervently hopes. Instead, it will be a constant, lurking issue facing the fast food business and its millions of hungry customers.



Is Food Safety Regulation Necessary?

The Food Safety Modernization Act, enacted in 2011 but just now being implemented, would seem at first glance to be the type of federal action that many say hurts the economy and stifles economic growth.

We’ve all heard the complaint (it’s a staple of the Presidential campaign): there’s too much regulation, and business must be freed from oppressive federal rules in order to drive economic growth.

Food safety, however, might be the exception.  Food is the world’s most important commodity, and although safety standards and procedures have dramatically improved from the days of Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair, the very size of the industry from field to table makes a 100% safe food supply an aspirational goal, but far from a reality.

The new food safety act (known by its acronym, FSMA) codifies into federal law sweeping new regulations across the multi-billion dollar food channel. Perhaps most important, FSMA unveils a new philosophy of regulation. Instead of reacting to food contamination outbreaks after-the-fact, which has been standard operating procedure for decades, FSMA seeks to prevent outbreaks by placing more responsibilities on food companies to manage their businesses in accordance with the new regulations.

Peanut ButterHere’s a specific example. One of the new regulatory initiatives under FSMA requires food manufacturers and processors to undertake a thorough and detailed hazard analysis of any and all possible weak points in their production system, from machinery lubricants to temperature controls to safe and sanitary packaging protocols. Once these analyses are completed, they must be maintained on premises, regularly updated and documented.

Failure to implement these steps (or to ignore them) could result in fines and — something new — criminal liabilities for company CEOs and other officers.

Needless to say, FSMA represents sweeping change, and change almost always brings on anxiety and stress. Before FSMA was enacted four years ago, it was heavily lobbied by various food industry trade groups and firms, and the pushback continued as implementation began. Yet it is the law, and as a food consumer, we should consider FSMA as a good incentive for the industry to make food production and distribution as safe as possible.

Of course, there are skeptics, and the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees FSMA, is nothing if not deliberate (i.e. glacial) in moving forward with implementation. Yet to those critics who denounce regulation, two recent food-borne illness incidents sadly demonstrate the need for close supervision of food production. In one case, a Georgia peanut butter company knowingly distributed product contaminated with salmonella, resulting in numerous cases of illness and nine deaths. (Two of the company’s top officials were prosecuted and sentened to 20+ years in prison). In another, an ice cream producer shipped thousands of gallons of ice cream with minute amounts of the dangerous Listeria microbe. Hundreds of consumers fell ill; three died.

America’s food supply is overwhelmingly safe. But it can always be safer. With FSMA, the food industry is under the spotlight to make food safety a top management priority, or face some rather unpalatable legal and brand consequences.