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Quality Digest

Standards

ASQ Quarterly Quality Report—Food Safety

Published: Monday, July 23, 2007 - 22:00

(ASQ: Milwaukee) -- Public attention has been focused as perhaps never before on the safety of the food supply as a result of recent high-profile outbreaks of illness linked to various foods.

According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a rare strain of Salmonella in peanut butter produced at a plant in Georgia between August 2006 and January 2007 sickened 628 people in 47 states.

California fresh spinach contaminated with a pathogenic form of the bacterium E. coli killed three people and sickened more than 200 people in 26 states in late summer 2006.There were two multistate outbreaks of pathogenic E. coli associated with lettuce used in fast-food restaurants and two multistate Salmonella infections associated with tomatoes in 2006.

While the glare of widespread media attention was focused on these human food incidents, at least 16 pets died from the effects of tainted wheat gluten processed in China and blended into pet foods that were sold in the United States, Canada, and Mexico under more than 100 brand names.

The resultant calls by the media, the public, consumer groups, and legislators for more oversight of the food supply almost invariably include a clamoring for more inspectors and more inspection.

“The problem is, the science of quality has told us that more inspection is not going to inspect the defect out of the product,” says Steve Wilson, chief quality officer for the U.S. Commerce Department’s Seafood Inspection Program.

“Asking, ‘Do we need more inspectors?’ is a loaded question, because usually you do need more inspectors, but only because of the way the current system is designed,” states Wilson, who is also on the board of directors of the American Society for Quality.

There is evidence that food safety in the United States is getting better, not worse.

The CDC’s FoodNet surveillance program, which tracks diseases caused by pathogens transmitted commonly through food, found that in 2006 the incidence of infections caused by four of the most common food pathogens—Campylobacter, Listeria, Shigella, and Yersinia—declined significantly since the baseline period 1996–98. Infections caused by two other pathogens—Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli O157 (STEC O157) and Salmonella—declined but not by a statistically-significant amount. Infections caused by Vibrio (most often associated with consumption of raw seafood) increased over this period. Incidence of STEC O157 infections declined substantially in 2003 and 2004, but then rose in 2005 and 2006. The decline in 2003–04 was associated with concerted efforts by the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service and the beef-processing industry to combat E. coli contamination in ground beef. Reasons for the STEC O157 increases in 2005 and 2006 are not known.

CDC says that more than half of the reported foodborne outbreaks cannot be attributed to any specific pathogen by current diagnostic methods. In addition, identification is hampered by the increase in new pathogens appearing on the scene and drug-resistant variants of existing known pathogens, as well as well-known pathogens appearing in new types of foods. If we don’t yet know how to identify many of these pathogens, as the agency surmises, then more inspection isn’t going to help in this case.

The enormity of the food production and distribution system, with more than 350,000 retail food outlets in the United States and food imports alone in the billions of pounds, also exposes the foolhardiness of reliance on inspection-based systems to give the public the level of assurance they seek.

The logical extension of an inspection-based system to guarantee food safety would be for every household to have its own inspectors, like the food tasters who protected medieval nobles. Such a vast army of modern-day food tasters would also be required to be trained microbiologists and chemists with access to highly sophisticated laboratories. This is clearly an absurd and outrageously costly option.

If not inspection, what?
Alternatives to a reactive, inspection-based food safety system stress preventive approaches and take into account current trends in food production, processing, and distribution.

John Surak, a food-safety consultant and member of the ASQ Food, Drug and Cosmetic Division, points to three trends that are reshaping thinking on approaches to assuring food safety. “We’ve had tremendous consolidation in the food processing industry; our eating patterns, habits and preferences have changed in recent years; and the industry is developing more robust food safety management systems,” Surak says.

Whether grains, vegetables, dairy, or meats and poultry, the number of food-processing plants has declined and the output of those plants has increased.

“If you’re going to have a glitch, the problem is major and can affect a large number of individuals,” Surak says. “When we had more locally produced food processed in smaller, more localized plants, a glitch may not have appeared on the national media radar screen because not very many people got sick.” /p>

Today’s health-conscious consumers want fresh fruits and vegetables all year. They also demand foods that are essentially ready to eat. The fresh-cut sector is the fastest-growing segment of the produce industry. For example, fresh spinach consumption per capita has increased 180 percent since 1992. When these fresh, ready-to-eat foods do become contaminated, the likelihood they will produce a foodborne illness is quite high, since unlike meat and poultry, they’re not cooked prior to being consumed. Fresh produce has now surpassed beef as the leading source of illness caused by pathogenic E. coli in the United States.

This consumer demand has created new opportunities in the way we grow, harvest, and process fresh fruits and vegetables. From a food-safety perspective, it has allowed the development of good agricultural practices (GAP)—a set of food-safety principles that can be applied in the farm field, such as controlling animal wastes that originate in feedlots. They’re designed to prevent contamination from microorganisms that are naturally present in the agricultural environment. Complementing the good agricultural practices are good manufacturing practices (GMP), which prevent further contamination of fresh fruits and vegetables after harvest.

Elements of a preventive approach to food safety
Some of the elements of a prevention-based approach to food safety are already well established within the industry and within the regulatory framework, while other elements are in various stages of development or have been proposed in the past but not implemented. These include:

  • Going back to the basics. “One of the things I emphasize day-in and day-out when I work with industry, is that you have to do the basics well, and you repeat it time and time again,” states Surak. “I see problems in companies where they tend to forget about doing the basics.”

An FDA report on causes of food recalls occurring between 1999 and 2003, revealed that 83 percent of the two most serious classes of recalls could be attributed to failure to control GMP issues or to breakdowns in prerequisite programs—in other words, failing to do the basics correctly.

Some of these basics include strictly following good manufacturing practices at the plant level and good agriculture practices at the producer or farm level. These GMPs and GAPs are some of the prerequisites that are the foundation for implementing hazard analysis and critical control point (HACCP).

HACCP is a quality management system for effectively and efficiently ensuring farm-to-table food safety by controlling microbial, chemical, and physical hazards associated with food production. A prevention-based system, it takes a proactive approach by identifying the principal hazards and the control points where contamination can be prevented, limited, or eliminated across the whole food production process—rather than trying to identify and control contamination after it has occurred. HACCP principles are being applied to an increasing range of food products.

“In the dairy industry we’ve voluntarily applied HACCP because it makes sense,” states Janet Raddatz, vice president of quality and food safety systems at Sargento Foods Inc. “FDA isn’t requiring anyone to do it—we’re policing ourselves,” she says. Raddatz is an ASQ fellow and an ASQ-certified manager of quality/organizational excellence.

HACCP and its risk assessments and prerequisite programs—the food-safety basics—form the foundation of the food-safety system at Sargento. “We utilize HACCP in all our plants on all our lines for all our products,” Raddatz says.

The basics also include having an effective and strong supplier quality program so that food producers and processors can be certain about the quality and wholesomeness of components and ingredients they purchase from their suppliers.

  • Application of resources and attention to areas of greatest risk. In the absence of limitless resources it makes sense to apply the greatest attention to those aspects of the food supply chain, where the greatest safety risks lie. Existing quality and food-safety tools, applied within state-of-the-art food quality management systems, can be quite effective at reducing the risk of foodborne illness. Many food producers and distributors have a track record of operating in accordance with these proven quality management systems. Applying risk-based criteria to regulatory and inspection efforts means that fewer resources can be directed at these producers, freeing up more resources to be directed at higher-risk targets.

  • Design and implementation of better systems. A fairly recent development—the introduction of the ISO 22000 international standard—provides a common basis for food producers anywhere in the world to design and implement fundamentally sound and robust food safety management systems.

ISO 22000 represents the latest step in the evolution of food safety systems beyond HACCP. It combines the five preliminary steps and seven principles of HACCP into a food-safety management system that goes beyond regulatory compliance. The standard is auditable, harmonizing national food safety standards to ensure confidence to customers and consumers throughout the food chain anywhere in the world. It marries accepted state-of-the-art quality management principles with state-of-the-art food-safety practice.

“Good quality and food-safety management principles will have us take a look at the data and design a system around the data, and do what the data tell us vs. what our gut is telling us to do—what the perception is telling us to do,” says Wilson. “And then you work on the process vs. the product, and you work on the system vs. the process. If you do it that way you have a better chance of having stronger product than if you’re simply inspecting the product.”

For that reason, Wilson, Surak, and others who have studied ISO 22000 say it’s a very strong standard that deserves to be widely implemented. Both Surak and Wilson served on the committee that developed the standard.

“So far, those who have implemented it seem to think it’s working quite well,” Wilson states. “Inspectors and plants who really look at it like the standard.”

As of February 2007, more than 250 companies had sites registered to the ISO 22000 standard. The bulk of these, about 75 percent, are in Europe.

For more information, visit www.asq.org/quality-report/reports/200706.html.

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