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From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, June/July 2008

Industry and Government Talk Food Safety

Keynote speakers agree that food safety is good for bottom line

by Stephanie Cajigal

Government and industry don’t usually agree on much. But at the 10th annual Food Safety & Security Summit in Washington, D.C., in March, the consensus was clear: Food safety is not only good for the public’s health, it’s good for business. Food safety leaders from Coca-Cola, Walt Disney, the National Restaurant Association, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Association of Food and Drug Officials spoke at the meeting about ensuring food safety—and the bottom line.

Most Recognized and Respected

Rick Frazier, senior vice president of technical stewardship at Coca-Cola, explained how his company “navigated from the world’s most recognized brand to the most respected brand.” Frazier said the company based its success on a “3R Strategy”: minimize risk, grow revenue, and enhance reputation.

Following recent recalls, the media, he said, is creating a perception that food is less safe than people think. In response, Coca-Cola is focusing on mitigating all potential food safety risks. In 2005, the company invested $25 million in analytical tools to monitor the standards of its factories. Last year, the tools were used to analyze 340,000 samples, he said. “The key to our success in improving is reviewing with rigor and routine,” he said.

The company also sets global standards for its 700,000 employees working in over 200 countries. Local experts ensure that each location is meeting food safety guidelines. This ensures that quality is consistent, he said. “A Coke is a Coke anywhere on Earth,” he added.

To enhance its reputation, Frazier said the company envisions building “an organization that would advance the integrity of our brands and our company by shaping the scientific, regulatory, environmental, and quality landscape through leading science-based standards, policies, and processes that are beyond reproach in the court of public opinion and build stakeholder trust in us, our products, and our performance.“

As part of this plan, Coca-Cola is focusing on more environmentally friendly production methods—relying on less water use and using recyclable bottles, for example. Frazier also said that company transparency is important in building trust with customers. When a food safety issue does arise, he said, companies should share what they know with the public and employees. “The public expects it and employees deserve it,” he said.

A Vicious Race

Frank Yiannas, director of safety and health at the Walt Disney World Company, said the food industry must prepare for what he called a rise in foodborne illnesses. “We are in a vicious race,” he said, with industry prevention lagging behind public health detection.

Yiannas emphasized that the future of food safety is in both “high-tech” and “high-touch” approaches. “Advancements in food safety are not only advancements in science and technology, what we call high tech, but it also depends on advancements of high touch, or softer skills such as leadership and human behavior,” he said in an interview with Food Quality magazine.

A food safety plan, for example, will decide how many times a day foods should be inspected and at what temperatures the foods need to be maintained. But a good manager, using a high-touch strategy, will make sure the plan is executed or will change the plan if it isn’t good enough, Yiannas said.

An example of a technological innovation, he said, is the use of strategic control points to control Escherichia coli at slaughterhouses rather than farther down the production line. “There’s a lot of data; we need tools to make sense of it,” he said.

A challenge to this strategy, however, is the consumer trend toward purchasing more natural, fresh food products. For example, more and more people are now purchasing unpasteurized milk or juices, Yiannas said. “We’re going to have to look at different ways of controlling microbiological hazards,” as opposed to strategies used for products like canned foods that have absolute control points, he said. The entire industry will need to learn how to produce natural but safe products, he added.

Is Your Food Safe?

Richard Rivera, chairman of the board of the National Restaurant Association, spoke about the need to gain consumers’ trust in the wake of recent recalls. These include the beef recall in early 2008, the largest beef recall in United State’s history, he said, as well as the E. coli outbreak in spinach in the fall of 2006.

“The question restaurateurs heard over and over was, ‘Is your food safe?’” he said. Rivera cited a 2007 report from the Food Marketing Institute that found only 43% of consumers surveyed were confident in the safety of their restaurant food. “It’s clear that there is a strong and urgent message in these findings—a message for the entire food industry,” he said.

One food safety strategy that has worked, he said, is the collaboration between restaurateurs and suppliers. He said restaurateurs are now asking their suppliers key questions: Are our growers and packers using best practices? How closely can we monitor and audit suppliers? Who’s walking the fields to get to know the growers? How is food transported from one place to another?

“And we’re not afraid to use our checkbook to make it stick,” he said. “As an industry, we buy from companies that get food safety right, and for those who can’t or won’t, we take our business elsewhere.”

Still, Rivera emphasized that there is plenty of room for improvement.

Issues currently affecting the food industry include an increase in imported foods, emerging novel pathogens, and advances in communication technology that allow information (and rumors) about food outbreaks to spread more quickly than ever before, he said.

Rivera said the National Restaurant Association supports the following changes:

  • Giving the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture the authority to order mandatory recalls;
  • Seeing the FDA Model Food Code used as the foundation for regulation at the state level;
  • Having health inspectors adopt a standardized inspection form for restaurant inspections; and
  • Improving resources for investigating outbreaks at the state level.

New Food Safety Strategies

Kari Barrett, senior advisor of Food Protection at the FDA, and Capt. David Elder, director of the Office of Enforcement within the Office of Regulatory Affairs at the FDA, spoke about the agency’s new strategies for food safety. “We really want to work with industry to build in safety first,” Barrett said.

The FDA’s new approach is more proactive than preventative, she added. “As we become a more aging population, we become more susceptible to foodborne illnesses,” Barrett said. “This increase in volume has really taxed the limits of FDA’s ability to handle it.” The new plan, announced in May 2007, focuses on prevention, intervention, and response.

In terms of prevention, Elder said that the Office of Regulatory Affairs has monthly meetings with federal food safety partners to solicit input and develop lists of specialists to enhance food safety inspections. The office also works with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to attribute pathogens to specific foods and verify when contamination occurs in the food production cycle, he said.

To improve intervention methods, the FDA wants to accredit task parties to carry out food inspections, Barrett said. The response plan involves improving risk communication to the public, industry, and other stakeholders when an outbreak occurs, she said. Barrett also pointed out that bills introduced in the House and Senate would give the FDA authority to mandate recalls and would enhance the agency’s access to food records during emergencies.

Elder asked industry to join regulators in improving food safety by staying on top of suppliers. “So many of the problems that we experience in the FDA are due to supplier issues,” he said. Every company needs to have a food safety emergency plan in place, he added. “We expect the industry to keep improving their systems, to improve their controls. Be vigilant.”

Isolated Approach Changing

Steve Steingart, industry liaison/assistant chief of the Allegheny County Food Advisory Board, part of the Allegheny County Health Department in Pennsylvania, and president of the Association of Food and Drug Officials, discussed how state and local agencies work with the FDA to improve food safety.

“Most responses occur at the state and the local levels; seldom would they call a federal agency,” he said. This isolated approach is changing, however. “We have a lot more at stake at this time,” Steingart said in an interview with Food Quality. “We’re getting involved more now than ever before with imports and recalls ... these things are something that are on the rise.”

One example of a successful collaboration between the FDA and a state agency occurred as a response to the Castleberry Food Company recall in North Carolina in July 2007, which came about due to the risk of botulinum toxin.

“They utilized what they called in North Carolina an incident command structure to coordinate the efforts of over 1,000 people and maybe 80 or so different local agencies within that state working with FDA to do recall-effectiveness checks,” Steingart said. The FDA did over 3,000 such checks, he added.

“What makes that different is the large number; second is the fact that they went to what’s considered nontraditional places—daycares, campgrounds, and personal care homes,” he said. Nowadays, many people get their food from places other than supermarkets, Steingart said. This collaboration allowed food safety experts in North Carolina to execute more recalls within 10 days than the FDA accomplished nationwide.

Another reason the FDA and state and local agencies should work together is to pool resources, especially at a time when the FDA is understaffed, Steingart said. “The point I tried to make in Washington is that it’s not that we do better or more than the FDA, but given the resources, the states and locals working with FDA can do more together than any one agency can,” he said.

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