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The Highest Calling
After 100 years of safely feeding a nation, the U.S. food industry is poised to take another bold step in ensuring public health
by By Shawn Stevens
Over the past 100 years, the ways in which our food is produced, distributed, and regulated have changed dramatically. We have witnessed the maturation of our nation and the industry that keeps it fed. And, today, the concept of food safety is at the forefront of our national discourse. To ensure success in the future, we must be committed to learning from each of the significant—and lasting—lessons learned from our past.
At the dawn of the 20th century, through advances in science and technology, the food industry began to better understand the processes through which food could be made more accessible. Indeed, the food industry was revolutionized with improved preservation techniques and the emergence of rapid transnational shipping. For the first time, food processors could produce and viably ship perishable products anywhere in the nation.
In the absence of a federal approach—there had not yet been a need—food laws were implemented primarily at the state and local level. As could be expected within a growing nation, industrial advances outpaced the limited state and local regulations. Laws defining “adulteration” or “misbranding” were determined, if at all, by individual states. Moreover, what was forbidden in one state was lawful in another. Without a national approach to food safety and a single set of rules, citizens could have no confidence in the origins or safety of the food they were eating.
Technological advances outside the food industry inspired incredible change as well. The emergence of inexpensive newspapers that reached across the nation gave individuals and consumer groups an opportunity to voice their concerns. Social reformers who otherwise would have remained unheard could now reach a broad audience. The most famous example was Upton Sinclair. In his 1906 novel, The Jungle, Sinclair described the unsanitary conditions prevalent in large meat-packing plants.
These conditions outraged the public, and the resulting demand for change became too loud for Congress to ignore. Reacting to the nationwide chorus urging reform, the federal government realized that a uniform food safety policy—a single set of rules—was essential to protect the national economy and the health of American citizens.
In 1906, Congress responded to these growing concerns by passing the Meat Inspection and Pure Food and Drugs acts. Enforced by the USDA and the FDA, these acts and their successors form the framework for today’s national food safety policy.
Food companies must understand that if their food products are contaminated with pathogens when they leave the company’s control, those contaminants will likely be found. This is because more and more food companies are sampling incoming raw materials and finished products before using or selling them. Even if such contamination is not detected through downstream testing, foodborne illness and outbreak surveillance has become so robust that, if a food product causes a foodborne illness or outbreak, investigators will be able to trace it back to the offending company.
Where Are We Today?
In recent years, the regulation of our food supply has moved from the old organoleptic-based inspection system embraced in 1906 (sight, smell, and touch) to a food safety system that relies heavily on science. In the 1990s, the USDA announced that all meat and poultry processors must adopt HACCP. Although this was a revolutionary change in the way food was regulated, it took only a few years before HACCP was being implemented and enforced successfully in thousands of processing plants across the nation.
More recently, recognizing the effectiveness of HACCP in increasing the safety of meat and poultry, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act. The new act will soon require all other FDA-regulated food companies to adopt and follow written HACCP-like food safety plans.
These new FDA requirements go into effect in July. Fortunately, affected food companies can learn a great deal from the lessons of the past decade. A few notable observations can particularly help all companies prepare today for the changes the FDA will soon begin enforcing.
First, food companies must understand that if their food products are contaminated with pathogens when they leave the company’s control, those contaminants will likely be found. This is because more and more food companies are sampling incoming raw materials and finished products before using or selling them. Even if such contamination is not detected through downstream testing, foodborne illness and outbreak surveillance has become so robust that, if a food product causes a foodborne illness or outbreak, investigators will be able to trace it back to the offending company. All companies must recognize that if contaminants exist, they will, through industry testing or national outbreak tracking, be found.
Second, for each of the reasons outlined above, companies also need to understand that the best time and place to prevent or control pathogens is before the product leaves a company’s control. Thus, all food companies need to embrace the new HACCP requirements, viewing them not as another regulatory burden but as an “insurance policy” designed to protect the company and its customers.
Third, when working to develop an effective HACCP plan, companies should strive to keep it simple. If the plan is too complicated, it may become impossible to manage effectively. Moreover, because a company’s HACCP plan will become, in essence, an extension of the federal regulations under which the company will be judged, the amount of federal intrusion and second-guessing will be minimized if the plan is kept simple.
This simply means each company should identify those food safety risks it fears most and then develop science-based controls to address each risk. Whether this involves incoming raw material sampling, temperature management, or other controls will ultimately depend upon the specific products a company produces. With that said, each company should consider hiring a food safety lawyer to review its HACCP plan, as well as incoming raw material specifications and finished product guarantees, to make sure every risk is not only identified but also adequately controlled.
Finally, FSMA also creates the opportunity to shift some of the burden upstream. While there may be many risks a company faces in its own operations, some of those can be better managed by suppliers. In this regard, companies can require their suppliers to identify those risks that concern them most, then require that the supplying companies adopt protocols to control each one. Here too, companies can keep their food safety plans as simple as possible, while passing certain obligations to upstream suppliers.
In the end, as long as a company’s HACCP plan anticipates and controls the concerns it fears most, either internally or at the supplier level, it can rest easy knowing that its customers, the company, and the nation it feeds will be protected.
Where We’re Going
If the past 100 years provides any lesson, the next 100 years will bring even greater change. As our food supply continues to mature globally and more food products are imported, the challenges we face at home will grow exponentially. And, with the global food supply continuing to expand as it has at home for the past 100 years, we will be confronted with more challenges and—sometimes—more risk.
But with each new challenge comes new opportunity. By being proactive and embracing HACCP as a food safety solution rather than a regulatory burden, we can immunize ourselves from those risks.
We can also stand proudly as a role model for our colleagues and, someday, the rest of the world. We have chosen to associate ourselves with an industry whose products affect the health of our neighbors, families, and friends. After 100 years of successfully meeting this challenge, we should congratulate ourselves for proving that we can, and will continue to, safely feed a nation.
Stevens, an attorney at Gass Weber Mullins LLC in Milwaukee, Wis., counsels food industry clients nationally on food safety regulatory and liability issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (414) 224-7784.