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What's Right With the Food Industry
Food safety remains top priority in the industry
by Tina DiMarcantonio
Recent food recalls—from pet food to peanut paste to bagged spinach—and the increased media attention to those recalls have seemingly tarnished the image of the food industry. Consumers are, for the most part, unaware of the effort, time, talent, and resources that go into making their food supply safe.
“The public doesn’t think the food industry is doing enough to protect them,” said Jerry Mithen, vice president of manufacturing services at RQA Inc., a consulting company for the food industry and other industries in Darien, Ill. “Some of the public interest groups and lawyers that solicit class action lawsuits are fanning the fire of these isolated events, making the public think the American food supply is less than safe, when in fact it’s the safest in the world,” he told Food Quality.
“Consumers have a right to expect safe, high-quality food,” said Joan Menke-Schaenzer, chief global quality officer at ConAgra, headquartered in Omaha, Neb. “The thing to remember about food safety is that it is not a competitive advantage; it’s a point of entry. Everybody in the food industry, whether it’s a restaurant, grocery store, or manufacturer, has to provide safe, quality food.”
Although the food industry is aware of the negative public opinion, not all companies are committed to improving the industry’s image, according to Mike Doyle, PhD, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia in Griffin, Ga. “Frankly, my experience has been that not all food companies are equally committed to ensuring the safety of their products,” Dr. Doyle told Food Quality. “It’s incumbent on all companies to raise that bar for food safety to a much higher level, and there are several companies highly motivated to do that.”
What Is the Food Industry Doing Right?
According to Dr. Doyle, companies committed to safety employ strong food safety programs that not only meet the requirements of the law, including the good manufacturing practices promulgated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), but also go above and beyond those requirements.
Joan Menke-Schaenzer, ConAgra
It takes diligence every day. It’s not just talk; it’s action behind the talk.
Those “highly committed” manufacturers employ what Dr. Doyle calls “a first-class safety program.” Such a program includes a vice president who oversees safety independent of quality, internal unannounced audits to determine the real-life day-to-day conditions in food processing plants, and critical reviews to ensure that plants are performing under the best conditions possible. Many of these companies also perform finished product testing, he said.
“The bottom line is that food safety costs money. If we want to raise the bar and provide better ways to ensure the safety of food, it’s going to cost more,” Dr. Doyle said.
According to Mithen, the food industry is working hard to ensure safety. “The food industry does almost everything that can be done technically correct. They have fundamental programs of pest control, basic hygiene, employee training, good laboratory practices, hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) programs, foreign matter control—the list goes on.”
Mithen said the industry has quickly adopted HACCP principles, and some companies in non-HACCP-regulated industries have also accepted those principles. Most companies also have supplier inspection programs, require split samples, and perform laboratory analysis and third-party external audits. “The public generally doesn’t see any of this,” Mithen said.
Collaboration Within Industry
Menke-Schaenzer said industry is working collaboratively with the FDA, the USDA, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Manufacturers are also working together to share best practices for safe food delivery and education.
Carletta Ooton, chief quality and product integrity officer at Coca-Cola, highlighted the benefits of the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI). Forums such as the GFSI did not exist a few years ago. “[Now] there’s a real concerted effort to work together,” she said. “You actually see industry asking for legislative change.”
Another collaborative effort occurred after a recall of ConAgra’s Banquet pot pie. According to Menke-Schaenzer, the company learned, as a result of the recall, that consumers are unaware of the wattage of their microwave ovens and that there are inconsistencies among microwave ovens. Con-
Agra recruited a group of microwave oven manufacturers, food manufacturers, and retailers to form the American Frozen Food Institute. The institute developed a plan to help consumers use microwave ovens properly, beginning with a prominent display of the wattage on microwave oven doors.
“The group is still in place, and we’re working to better understand how microwave ovens work and also understand consumer behavior,” Menke-Schaenzer said. “It’s a continuous learning process.”
Ensuring Safety Every Day
ConAgra has invested $275 million in the past year to ensure safe, high-quality food and to upgrade its plants. The company has hired 140 food safety and quality experts and has implemented a rigorous hazard analysis and inspection program of its raw materials, equipment, times, and temperatures. ConAgra also performs audits to ensure that company standards and processes are in place.
“A big part of this is not only how you run things and your equipment, but it’s your people,” Menke-Schaenzer said. “Are people washing their hands? Do we have the right sanitation or cleaning programs in our lines?
Mike Doyle, PhD, Center for Food Safety, University of Georgia
It’s incumbent on all companies to raise that bar for food safety to a much higher level, and there are several companies highly motivated to do that.
“We really take a lot of care on a daily basis to … make sure we have the good manufacturing practices and that people are doing the right thing.”
ConAgra also values the importance of employee training and education for plant managers, supervisors, and line workers. “They need to know … why the things we ask them to do are important and how it impacts public health,” Menke-Schaenzer said.
After the Peter Pan peanut butter recall caused by the presence of Salmonella, ConAgra shut down and then rebuilt its Sylvester, Ga., plant. “We refigured the process such that, fundamentally, it is the safest peanut butter plant out there today,” Menke-Schaenzer said.
According to Ooton, Coca-Cola believes that ensuring food safety depends on the right strategies and the “execution of those strategies across the system,” including all of its 1,100 manufacturing facilities.
“For us, [food safety is] not a side job,” Ooton said. “It’s about a real commitment and a real belief. It’s about putting our resources and our money and our best talent into food safety.”
Ooton said Coca-Cola employs a robust approval process and is committed to managing supplier quality and supplier development. The company performs incoming testing and inspection. Coca-Cola’s trade sampling program asks employees to buy the product at different venues around the world to ensure the brand by testing the products, Ooton said. Coca-Cola also employs corporate governance and limits and performs audits in fraud, the environment, and occupational health and safety.
Long-term strategies at Coca-Cola include its global lab development. The company has spent $31 billion over the past three years constructing state-of-the-art analytic centers in Pune, India; Shanghai, China; and Johannesburg, South Africa.
Earthbound Farm in San Juan Bautista, Calif., a 26-year-old organic farm, has made a commitment to ensuring that its food safety practices are transparent and available to its customers, according to Will Daniels, vice president of quality, food safety, and organic integrity.
The company has implemented a “multi-hurdle program,” which starts before planting and continues through packaging. The program includes testing product for pathogens twice, first at the raw product level and then again at finished product. “All of our fertilizer, seeds, and water are tested, and our ranches are inspected regularly,” Daniels said. “The final ‘firewall’ … are the two pathogen tests we do with the salad greens themselves. … At both points, we destroy any greens that show signs of pathogens.”
The company also has an organic integrity program that involves unannounced visits between certification audits to check for organic compliance. “We also have a scientific advisory panel, with some of the nation’s top food safety scientists, who review our program several times a year and make recommendations,” Daniels said.
At Bram Foods in Brampton, Ontario, Canada, which primarily manufactures seafood products, the company has taken steps to achieve the Marine Stewardship Council certification. It is one of the few small companies to be ISO 22000 certified, according to Navpreet Amole, director of research and development at Bram Foods.
Bram Foods has an in-house microbiology lab where it tests for any possible infectious material, Amole said. In addition, the company ensures traceability of its products and sterilization of the entire process, monitors and regularly tests certain critical control points, and trains employees to understand the importance of food safety.
Carletta Ooton, ConAgra
[now] There’s a Real concerted effort to work together. You actually see industry asking for legislative change.
What More Can Be Done?
Menke-Schaenzer said companies need to continue building partnerships and investing in new technology. More research is required to ensure longer shelf life for the “natural” food products on the market, according to Amole.
Companies must remember the basics, with “a reemphasis on some of the basic quality and food safety principles and programs like HACCP,” Ooton said. “You’ve got to protect that base and then…look for ways to improve traceability from farm to fork and think about sophisticated types of allergen management programs.”
Industry should keep looking to the future, build new capabilities, and recruit new talent who will keep safety a high priority. “How are you growing the best and the brightest minds who want to be in this space, stay in this space, and help you find those new technologies?” Ooton said.
“The food industry knows that we’re responsible,” Menke-Schaenzer said. “We understand that we have to seek new technologies, that we have to keep our roofs from leaking and have all the right tools and the best education possible. We do take that responsibility seriously, and we keep that front and center.
“It takes diligence every day. It’s not just talk; it’s actions behind the talk.” ■