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20 Years in Food Safety: A Look Back and Beyond
by Tim Donald
In celebration of Food Quality’s (now FOOD QUALITY & SAFETY) 20th anniversary, and with the help of its Editorial Advisory Panel, we reflect on the events in food safety that has helped shaped today’s food and beverage industry and also look ahead to what future developments might bring to the market.
The first part of this article provides a food safety timeline spanning 20 years based on news reports as well as insights offered by members of the Food Quality & Safety Editorial Advisory Panel. In the second part, we asked members of the Panel to offer their predictions—hopes, wishes, challenges, fears—for various segments of the industry for the next 20 years.
Food Safety’s Past
A statement from Panel member Purnendu Vasavada, PhD, makes a good introduction to the timeline, “The past 20 years, in regard to food safety and food microbiology, remind me of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities. ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…’”
Jan. 1993 - E. coli O157:H7 outbreak at Jack in the Box
This event brings food safety and foodborne disease emphatically to the attention of the nation and introduces the organism Escherichia coli into the public consciousness. The outbreak, traced to undercooked hamburger meat containing E. coli O157:H7 served by the fast-food chain, sickens more than 600 people in four western states. Four children die of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS).
“It was the first time people focused on the pathogen E. coli 0157:H7, and that outbreak really created the urgency for the federal government to take action,” comments Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director, at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).
Feb. 1993 - “Assay for motile facultative anaerobic pathogens” patent
This patent, on a method to detect L. monocytogenes in a total time of 24 to 36 hours, is the first of several issued to Daniel Y.C. Fung, PhD, a charter member of the Food Quality & Safety Editorial Advisory Panel and one of the originators of rapid methods and automation in microbiology, and Linda Yu.
Late 1993 - Efforts begin to develop steam pasteurization of beef carcasses
The Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak prompts Panel member Craig Wilson, who at the time was working at Frigoscandia (Bellvue, Wash.), and others to begin discussion of ways to prevent such outbreaks. They begin development of steam pasteurization of beef. By late 1994, they file a U.S. patent application, “Method and Apparatus for Steam Pasteurization of Meats.”
In a landmark speech to the American Meat Institute, Michael R. Taylor, then administrator of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), states “we consider raw ground beef that is contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 to be adulterated within the meaning of the Federal Meat Inspection Act…We plan to conduct targeted sampling and testing of raw ground beef at plants and in the marketplace for possible contamination. We know that the ultimate solution to the O157:H7 problem lies not in comprehensive end-product testing but rather in the development and implementation of science-based preventive controls with product testing to verify process control.”
1995-1996 - Creation of several food safety networks
In response to the E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak, several government initiatives to improve food safety intelligence were founded, including PulseNet, FoodNet, and NARMS.
PulseNet is a national network of public health and food regulatory agency laboratories coordinated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The name derives from the use of standardized pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) molecular subtyping (DNA fingerprinting) to identify and distinguish foodborne disease-causing bacteria. This allows ability to establish links among illnesses occurring in different times and locations.
Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network (FoodNet) tracks trends in infections commonly transmitted through food and reports the number of laboratory-confirmed illnesses caused by foodborne infections. By estimating the incidences of foodborne illnesses and their associations with specific foods, and monitoring trends over time, the network provides a foundation for food safety policy and prevention efforts.
The National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS) is a public health surveillance system that tracks antibiotic resistance in foodborne enteric bacteria from humans, retail meats, and food animals. NARMS collaborates with similar monitoring efforts in other countries. It also examines foodborne bacteria for genetic relatedness using PFGE and contributes this data to the PulseNet database.
July 1996 - The “Mega-reg”
FSIS enacts the final rule implementing “Pathogen Reduction; Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) Systems” for meat and poultry facilities. This landmark ruling establishes requirements for meat and poultry facilities to reduce the occurrence and numbers of pathogenic organisms on their products through implementation of sanitation standard operating procedures, regular microbial testing, and the development of preventive controls known as HACCP.
Oct. 1996 - Recall of Odwalla juice
E. coli 0157:H7 is identified in stool samples from people with HUS who had drunk Odwalla brand unpasteurized juice. The products had been distributed in several western states and British Columbia.
“As we continue to test and examine illnesses, we will continue to discover foods associated with illness that we never thought caused illness before,” says Jennifer McEntire, PhD, senior director, food and import safety, Leavitt Partners. “A case in point is the outbreak associated with Odwalla apple juice. Apple juice was considered an acidic product: No pathogen was supposed to grow in it. And yet there was an outbreak of E. coli 0157:H7 because the organism changed. We didn’t know that 0157 had a slightly different acid tolerance than other pathogens. Bacteria evolve; that’s what they do.”
Sept. 1997 - CSPI Outbreak Database
The CSPI establishes its Outbreak Alert! database to allow CSPI to independently evaluate problems and progress in the U.S. food supply. The database contains information and analysis on outbreaks that have been fully investigated, i.e., in which both a pathogen and a food are identified. CSPI also regularly publishes Outbreak Alert! and analyzes state reporting practices in reports such as All Over the Map.
“Today the outbreak database contains 7,000 outbreaks, tracking more than 20 years, starting in 1990, and cataloguing more than 200,000 illnesses in the U.S.,” comments DeWaal.
Dec. 1997 - Seafood HACCP rule
The HACCP Regulation for Fish and Fishery Products, requiring processers of fish and fishery products to develop and implement HACCP systems for their operations, becomes effective.
“For food safety in seafood, the major milestone was the 1997 HACCP regulations,” says Steven Wilson, chief quality officer, USDC Seafood Inspection Program. “That has been the model for the FDA putting out other HACCP regulations. After the seafood HACCP regulations came those for fruit juice.”
2000 - Founding of the GFSI
The Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) is an industry initiative devoted to continuous improvement of food safety management systems to ensure confidence in the safety of the food supply worldwide. Experts collaborate in numerous working groups to address food safety issues defined by GFSI stakeholders.
Jan. 2002 - HACCP rules for juice
Effective in 2002 (January 2003 for small businesses), the FDA circulates HACCP rules for production of fruit juice and juice concentrate. Processors making 100 percent juice or a concentrate for subsequent beverage use must apply HACCP principles. For beverages containing less than 100 percent juice, only the juice ingredient must apply to HACCP principles.
The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) promulgates ISO 22000, addressing food safety management to help facilities identify and control safety hazards. The standard stresses interactive communication, systems management, and HACCP principles. It emphasizes a combined effort of all parties in the food chain is needed since hazards can occur at any point.
“When ISO 22000 came out, that was a milestone, not just in seafood but foods in general,” says Wilson. “It was the first time a private management standard for food safety was internationally recognized. That standard made a number of regulatory agencies sit up and take notice. Also, it made differences in ISO’s way of thinking. At that time they had quality management in ISO 9001, environmental management in ISO 14001, and now here was a new management standard. This was when ISO decided through their business plan to get more involved in management systems.”
Jan. 2006 - Food allergen labeling
The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA), an amendment to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, requires the labels of foods that contains a “major food allergen” to declare the presence of the allergen.
“FALCPA was the culmination of an increasing awareness of the importance of providing clear and simple information to food-allergic consumers so they can make safe food choices without having to worry about misunderstanding what is on the label or what is in their foods,” says Steven Gendel, food allergen coordinator , FDA.
Aug.-Oct. 2006 - Multi-state E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak in spinach
The outbreak results in 205 confirmed illnesses in 26 states and three deaths, according to the FDA. The CDC reported that 102 people were hospitalized and 31 developed HUS. All spinach implicated in the outbreak was traced to a California firm.
“One thing that really came to light in the 2000s was the risks that are carried on our fresh produce, like fresh leafy greens and fresh vegetables,” comments DeWaal. “Fresh produce is linked to a large number of outbreaks and illnesses in our database, but consumers didn’t really become aware of it until the spinach outbreak in 2006.”
2008 - Melamine in infant formula
China reports melamine contamination in infant formula, causing kidney problems and kidney stones in babies. Melamine was intentionally added to milk to artificially increase the measured protein content.
2008-2009 – Salmonella and peanuts
The Peanut Corp. of America’s (PCA) products were the source in an outbreak of Salmonella typhimurium illnesses that killed nine people and sickened more than 700. The recall prompted by the outbreak involved thousands of products made by more than 300 companies. This February, criminal charges were filed against the former owner and other company employees, charging that they misled customers—not revealing when tests detected Salmonella in products from a plant in Blakely, Ga.
“The PCA scare really had an effect on auditing processes, and that will have an effect on how third parties are accepted by regulatory agencies,” says Wilson. “Those kinds of events have ripples throughout the entire food chain, not just one particular product group.”
May-Nov. 2010 - Outbreak of Salmonella enteritidis in eggs
The CDC identifies a nationwide, sustained increase in cases of Salmonella enteritidis infections uploaded to the PulseNet database. The CDC estimates that approximately 1,939 reported illnesses are likely associated with the outbreak. Epidemiologic investigations pointed to eggs as the source, and a nationwide recall followed. By August, according to a CNN report, the recall included half a billion eggs.
July 2010 - Egg safety regulations
Food safety requirements for egg producers with 50,000 laying hens or more take effect. Among other things, the new rules require producers to adopt preventive control measures and to use refrigeration during egg storage and transportation.
Jan. 2011 - FSMA signed into law
The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), the most sweeping U.S. reform of food safety law in more than 70 years, was signed into law by President Obama. The reform, which is still in the process of being implemented, is intended to improve the safety of the U.S. food supply by shifting the focus of regulators to prevention of contamination. Major components include the following.
Preventive controls. FDA has a legislative mandate to require comprehensive, prevention-based controls across the food supply.
Inspection and compliance. The law specifies how often FDA should inspect food producers, calling for risk-based and innovative inspection approaches.
Imported food safety. Importers must verify that foreign suppliers have adequate preventive controls in place. The FDA will be able to accredit third-party auditors to certify that foreign food facilities are complying with U.S. standards.
Response. Mandatory recall authority by FDA for all food products.
Enhanced partnerships. Recognition of the importance of strengthening existing collaboration among food safety agencies, from local to federal to international; directs FDA to improve training of state, local, territorial, and tribal food safety officials.
“FSMA is once-in-a-lifetime regulation,” says Virginia Deibel, PhD, director of microbiology, Covance. “We likely will not see another change in FDA law this significant in our lifetimes…the FDA no longer needs to prove an adulteration. They can instill regulatory action if they believe a facility is producing food in unsanitary conditions.”
“The FDA calls the new FSMA regulation HACCP on steroids,” adds another Food Quality & Safety Panel member.
2011 - Germany’s E. coli outbreak
A deadly strain of E. coli kills more than 40 and sickens more than 4,000 in Germany and other parts of Europe. On June 10, German authorities stated epidemiological and food-chain evidence found bean and seed sprouts were the vehicle of outbreak.
Aug.-Oct. 2011 - Multistate outbreak of listeriosis in whole cantaloupes
An outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes infections (listeriosis) sickens almost 150 people in 28 states. The outbreak was blamed for 33 deaths reported to CDC, and one miscarriage in a woman pregnant at the time of infection.
“We continue to find new pathogens, or find old pathogens in new places, causing problems that we had not seen before,” notes Gendel. “The outbreak of L. monocytogenes infections linked to whole cantaloupes is an example of such a situation. We continue to find that Mother Nature and the microbes are very good at exploiting new opportunities.”
Dec. 2012 - Hold-and-test strategy
The USDA FSIS announces that beginning in 2013 producers will be required to hold shipments of non-intact raw beef and all ready-to-eat products containing meat and poultry until they pass USDA testing for foodborne adulterants. Products will not be allowed to enter the market until they test negative for Shiga-toxin producing E. coli.
Jan. 2013 – Undeclared horse meat
Irish food inspectors detect horse meat in beef burgers and shortly thereafter similar incidents occur in more than 10 other European countries, propelling food fraud into the public spotlight. The scandal shakes consumer confidence, prompting proposed penalties for this type of labeling fraud.
The Future of Food Safety
What does the future hold? A few of our Editorial Advisory Panel members offered up their thoughts on possible developments during next 20 years for the segments of industry they specialize in. Here’s what they had to say.
Caroline Smith DeWaal, Food Safety Director, CSPI, Washington, D.C.
Our focus at the CSPI is on modernizing the food safety system in the U.S. in ways that maximize and promote consumer protection policies and programs. There are opportunities, for instance, to modernize how meat and poultry are inspected—the legal basis for meat inspection is still based on a 1906 model—and to bring inspections under a more scientific legal framework. A second emphasis is to continue to look for opportunities to merge the U.S. food safety agencies into a unified agency, combining programs at USDA and FDA. A final focus, one that already takes a lot of our time, is to work in the international sphere to ensure consumer protection is considered in the development of international standards by Codex Alimentarius and other international bodies.
The wide distribution of food products is a challenge, but not a new issue. The fact a food safety problem can enter a product in one plant and be shipped all over the world certainly poses challenges. CSPI has advocated for the adoption of rapid alert systems, similar to those in Europe, to notify national authorities. We’d like these rapid alerts to go all the way to the consumer, so we can be made aware of problems as they occur.
The rise in use of social media potentially provides the food industry and government with the means to get information to the public rapidly. The tools to accomplish this exist, but a strategy is needed to put such a system in place. If consumers know information isn’t being hidden from them but rather is provided at the earliest opportunity, this increases their confidence in the government and food supply.
Gerry Broski, Senior Marketing Director, Food Safety, Neogen Corp., Lansing, Mich.
The next 20 years are going to be interesting as we set the stage to address the food and nutrition requirements for a growing population while recognizing we have finite and precious resources. A projected 15 percent increase in the global population, from 7 billion currently to 8 billion by 2025, is becoming a concern of many in the field of food safety. We’ll have to proactively manage food safety plans and production to meet growing needs. FSMA is a step forward in addressing the needs of modern food production and distribution systems.
Technology continues to advance as new technology and solutions from the clinical, research, and life science areas are applied to food matrices. Food is a complicated product that can be made from many ingredients sourced from many areas, and food contaminants can be difficult to detect. Because many foods are perishable, the need for speed in testing will continue to be a target for improvement, and, because food safety is a basic requirement and not a competitive advantage, the cost of testing will be an area where simplicity and performance determine the adoption of new technology.
Having spent much of my career in food-related industries, my biggest fear is that looking forward we may not have enough qualified people at all levels to support the growing needs of the food safety industry. From lab technicians and analysts to managers, to quality control, to sales and marketing, qualified, educated, and trained people are needed to support the growing food and nutrition needs of the next generation.
Daniel Y. C. Fung, MSPH, PhD, Professor of Food Science and Animal Sciences, Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kan.
Using standard microbiology methods, several decades ago, it could take a week to identify an organism—to say definitively, for example, that this sample contains Salmonella typhimurium. As methods were improved, the time needed for these determinations was shortened. Within the past three or four years, the time for identification of an organism has been shortened to 12 hours. Within the next five to 10 years, we hope to further shorten that time to four hours. Then two hours, one hour—and eventually to get results instantaneously.
Microbiology is a very dynamic field. Processes are continually getting faster and more efficient. The basic problem in microbiology is we must start with a pure culture to identify an organism. Many researchers’ efforts now are centered on ways to achieve that pure culture: Perhaps a laser can pick out from a sample a single microdrop containing a single organism, and a puff of air can blow that microdrop into a tube or well for multiplication of the organism. Once this or some other method is used to isolate the pure culture, PCR and other tests can be performed to identify the organism.
Continued advances in rapid methods will require ingenious thinking and innovation in microbiology, immunology, electronics, lab-on-a-chip technologies, and perhaps other areas not yet envisioned. The field of food microbiology has developed very well in the past 30 years, and there is no reason to think that it will not continue to progress as new microbiologists and food scientists innovate and build on what has been done in the past.
Steven Gendel, Food Allergen Coordinator, FDA, College Park, Md.
One of the themes of [this year’s Food Safety Summit] meeting, in some cases explicitly stated, in other cases implicit in the things people talked about, was the connectedness of the food system and food safety. Everyone is part of the same system, and everybody’s food safety problem affects everyone else. In the future we are going to recognize this more and more. In coming years the food safety system will become more networked, integrated, and interactive than ever before.
There was a lot of discussion at the meeting around variations of this theme: More interaction is needed, whether among the federal agencies, between the federal agencies and the states, or among international bodies. We use terms like globalization and integration, but it really comes down to the fact that we are all now operating in a networked world. People are increasingly beginning to recognize that food production, food safety, and food sales are all part of a networked system. In the future, all the pieces of this system will need to communicate well with each other in order to make sure everyone knows what is going on so that we can keep the global food supply safe.
Jennifer McEntire, PhD, Senior Director, Food and Import Safety, Leavitt Partners, Washington, D.C.
Over the past 20 years the extent of global food trade has increased dramatically. With that increase, people are handling and consuming different types of foods, and the proper preparation and handling of those foods, as well as the pathogens and other contaminants that could be associated, might not be fully understood.
The industry is in a state of flux with the pending implementation of FSMA. Importers now have to ensure the food they bring into this country is produced safely under applicable regulations. Other countries too are weighing in with their own food safety laws and plans. How these changes will affect the global supply chain remains to be seen.
The use of technology shows great potential for development: How we alert people to a hazard, how we track products, how we monitor temperatures in real time, how we analyze data—in short, how we make decisions rapidly about a product—can be facilitated by technology. New technologies will give us a better grasp over what’s happening with a product to ensure food safety.
There are tremendous opportunities to leverage technology for these purposes. And in fact, developing economies, where the physical infrastructure for food safety (including the communication infrastructure) is still taking shape, may perhaps have greater ability to leverage some of these new technologies than more established economies where the infrastructure is already set.
A recent trend likely to continue in the future is interest in natural, local, and organic products, including raw and unprocessed foods. Industry will be pressured not only to provide these foods, but to provide them safely. Hopefully we’ll see the development of innovative processes to ensure this safety.
Purnendu Vasavada, PhD, Professor Emeritus of Food Science, University of Wisconsin-River Falls, River Falls, Wis.
Twenty years ago, isolating and characterizing Salmonella from ground beef could take seven to eight days. Now, because of the advances in molecular biology and DNA-based methods, we can do this in less than a day. With improvements in instrumentation, reagents, automation, etc., projects that used to take PhD students months or years to do are now done by high school students for their science fair. So we’ve come a long way.
Within the next few years it is not unreasonable that we could have multiplex assays to identify pathogenic organisms within a single shift. The challenge then, as now, is what do we do with this information? If you don’t use the information to improve your operation, to manage your inventory or improve food safety, then that information is useless—no matter how sophisticated the instrument or how quickly the information is generated.
Another challenge for the future is the threat of bioterrorism through intentional contamination of food or water. The envelope containing anthrax or ricin may be a threat to individuals, but how widespread is the havoc that it causes? Intentional contamination of food or water could cause a major disaster. Early warning systems will be vital to manage the situation in the event of something like that.
Craig Wilson, Vice President, Food Safety and Quality Assurance, Costco Wholesale, Issaquah, Wash.
I am excited about the advent of new intervention strategies, mainly in the produce area. Fresh-cut produce is a relatively weak area right now from a food safety perspective, and the produce industry is working on some marvelous intervention strategies. Some of these technologies, such as use of chlorine dioxide gas to inactivate pathogens on green leafy vegetables, are already being deployed today. There are other strategies being investigated, not only in produce but in every area of food production, to improve the overall microbial quality of food items.
I do not think the globalization of the food supply is a concern. Globalization of the food supply should be based on specifications. As a food safety professional for a major grocery retail chain, I am at the end of the food chain, so to speak. I can develop specifications and say to suppliers that if their food item does not meet those specs, we are not going to buy them. With those specifications in place and being met, whether the source of the food item is domestic or international is not an issue.
The advancement of technologies for rapid pathogen detection is very exciting. We are constantly looking at rapid detection methods and how our systems can be improved, and I think that’s going to be an area of continual improvement in the future because its importance is recognized.
Virginia Deibel, PhD, Director of Microbiology, Covance, Madison, Wis.
Most food companies would find significant value with the capability of real-time microbiological detection. Quality assurance staff could analyze products and product contact equipment and immediately determine whether or not a contaminant or adulterant is present. While real-time bacterial detection isn’t available today, the time to results has diminished considerably over the past five to 10 years. Many of the advances have been the move from cultural to genetic detection. There are genetic detection platforms currently in use that mainly utilize PCR or antibody capture. There are other models to detect ribosomal RNA (rRNA) rather than DNA used with PCR. Manufacturers suggest rRNA platforms provide greater sensitivity and less enrichment time even with rapid and sensitive assays. Current confirmation methods for pathogens still rely on many cultural techniques, which require time and scientific expertise. There’s a continued race against the clock to find ways that reduce overall assay time while maintaining or even increasing sensitivity, however the cost-per-test of these models is ever increasing. High test costs make the Environmental Control Program design and execution critical. Choosing where and how to test in a plant environment continues to be a key component of the testing process. So as much as a company may wish to have real-time detection, the road leading to this end-goal will be costly–financially and with needed scientific expertise. Partnering with a contract lab will be of value.
Steven Wilson, Chief Quality Officer, USDC Seafood Inspection Program, Silver Spring, Md.
When it comes to seafood, right now the best analysis is achieved by the nose, eyes, ears, and taste buds of the human inspector or auditor—sensory analysis. No mechanical method has been able to challenge the sensitivity of the human sensory apparatus, from a quality standpoint. That will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future. The challenge is to train inspectors well. That is hard work.
I see potential positives in the movement of regulatory assessment to third parties. Audit reports from certifying bodies can be used as intelligence, and trend analysis can help to pinpoint problems geographically to allow adjustment of import strategies. This true buyer-supplier information can provide a better picture of what’s going on in the field. A potential concern, however, is the use of those third parties in lieu of government inspection. Whenever there is a profit motive involved, one must be careful of perceived bias. Certifying bodies are in fact a business. So this can be a negative or a positive depending on how regulators use it.
I also hope to see the USDA move away from its 100-year-old practice of carcass-by-carcass inspection and focus more on system evaluation, auditing, and other advanced methods. USDA has had a dramatic impact on the world, and if other bodies would follow its lead in this area and combine forces on food inspection, this would help move toward a strong method in general for evaluating foods in the future. The question is, how long will it take to get there?
Tim Donald is a veteran journalist with extensive experience covering a variety of industries. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.