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A Fresh Look at a Dirty Problem
In the race to increase customer satisfaction, growers, processors and retailers are also increasing the risk of spreading foodborne pathogens
by Bob McDonald
It’s Sunday afternoon. A Philadelphia family is enjoying a fruit salad made with bananas from Ecuador, oranges from California, strawberries from Mexico and grapes from Chile. By Wednesday evening, they’re all in the hospital fighting stomach cramps and food poisoning from E. coli. It’s the industry’s worst nightmare, and unfortunately, it’s happening more frequently today than anyone would like, due—ironically—to several industry trends aimed at increasing customer satisfaction.
The techniques of growing, harvesting, slaughtering, processing and selling food are evolving at a breakneck pace. Corporate consolidation, transportation efficiencies and marketplace globalization mean produce growers; meat, poultry and seafood processors and supermarket retailers can now offer consumers more variety than ever before.
But some consumers are paying price for that variety with their health, and sometimes even their lives. Higher production density, a global food chain, and a growing array of prepared foods are increasing the risk of spreading dangerous foodborne pathogens.
No one wants this to happen, and when the issue is raised with key industry executives they assert they’re doing everything they can do to minimize risks. But are they?
To have a real impact on these dangers, the produce and processing industries must take a fresh look at existing safety standards and procedures, and start taking food safety as seriously as we take consumer demands for variety, convenience, and reasonable prices.
This means re-evaluating long-held beliefs, increasing on-site measurement for microbial pathogens, and deploying the latest food safety technologies everywhere food is stored, processed, and displayed.
New Trends, New Risks
Higher production density is making it harder to curb the spread of pathogens. Not even large multinational corporations such as Dole, Chiquita, Kraft, Smithfield, ConAgra, Tyson, Cargill and others are exempt.
No matter how unsanitary a local farm might have been in our grandparents’ day, and no matter how plentiful their highest yields, they weren’t storing millions of apples in 250,000 cubic-foot cold storage units or exporting 12 million boxes of fruit each year to countries around the world.
Such density gives a dark new meaning to the old adage, “one rotten apple spoils the bunch”. Whether it is an apple, head of lettuce, piece of meat, or other food, just one spoiled item can sometimes infect others hundreds of feet away, which in turn infect still more. The reason: more than 80 percent of food contaminants can spread by air.
The risk is just as great for beef processors slaughtering 500 cattle an hour, or pork processors raising 2,500 pigs in a pen. In these environments, a single animal infected by disease, bacteria or viruses can quickly spread the germs to hundreds of others.
Globalization only magnifies the problem. While expanding variety and making “out-of-season” a bygone concept, the global supply chain also multiplies opportunities for exposure to pathogens, which then spread rapidly through high density storage, transportation, and production environments. This hits produce hardest, because it’s routinely imported, exported, and processed at various points around the globe.
Paired with high density in production at multi-national companies, globalization is contributing to the number of foodborne illnesses among consumers, despite current safety measures.
The evidence: Produce now accounts for 12 percent of all foodborne illnesses, up from 1 percent of illnesses in the 1970’s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s no surprise, since produce is now stored longer, moves greater distances and is offered in more varieties from more global sources than ever before.
It can be argued that the explosion of prepared foods is also contributing to the recent increases in foodborne sicknesses. The more food is moved, washed, cut, seasoned, cooked, marinated, blended, and otherwise processed or prepared before reaching the consumer, the more it’s exposed to potentially harmful pathogens.
There are also behavioral reasons why prepared foods may increase infection risk. Most consumers know to wash and, where appropriate, cook unprepared produce, meat, and poultry before consumption. But almost no one takes precautions with prepared foods. They just assume prepared foods are safe when, in fact, if handled incorrectly, they can be riskier than foods bought raw and cooked at home.
Produce is now responsible for more large-scale outbreaks of food poisoning than meat, poultry, or eggs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But meat and poultry outbreaks, while now outpaced by produce, remain a critical problem.
Consider Dole Food Co.’s recall of 250,000 bags of pre-cut salads last October. Dozens of consumers were infected with E. coli. Then, there was the E. coli outbreak in January that sickened 18 people who drank infected milk in Washington State. There were also three deaths in Australia that were linked to processed meat infected with Listeria.
Pets are not even safe, as shown by the recent recall of 19 varieties of dog and cat food sold in 23 states by Diamond Pet Food Co. (Gaston, S.C.). The contaminated food contained aflatoxin, a potentially lethal chemical that killed dozens of dogs.
Despite these outbreaks, many food growers, shippers, processors and retailers are failing to address the danger posed by new industry trends. That’s surprising, since a large-scale outbreak poses a financial risk to literally every company along the food chain.
Companies often fear that acknowledging contamination risks could be perceived as an admission of guilt. That’s inhibiting progress, and preventing far too many organizations, large and small, from exploring new and better ways to fight harmful pathogens.
Food Safety’s Future
An effort to minimize foodborne illnesses begins with measuring the problem at every point along the supply chain. This is a simple, vital, and an often overlooked step. It takes but one unsanitary link in the chain to contaminate all the food passing through it.
The results of measurement can be alarming.
There are poorly run produce growers that don’t provide wash facilities for their field hands. There are supermarkets preparing contaminated chicken dinners because their utensils aren’t disinfected. And there are companies transporting food in box cars and trailers with bacteria and mold counts as high as 5,000 colony forming units (CFU’s) per cubic meter. That’s 50 times higher than ready-to-eat food safety levels, which are closer to 100 CFU’s per cubic meter.
These aren’t worst case scenarios. These are illustrations of what’s happening now across the country, and across our industry. For all the science that goes into growing and processing food, many companies still lag far behind in the science of measuring and eradicating pathogens.
For example, the third-shift nightly chemical cleanings at many food processing plants just aren’t good enough anymore. Even the most diligent organizations can’t sterilize every machine surface, conveyor belt, or corner of the work floor.
And pathogens that aren’t killed are stronger for the experience. Organisms such as Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria, Botrytis and others can grow in geometric proportions with the right combinations of temperature and humidity. Produce growers and food processors have to be fighting that pathogen growth around the clock.
One of the newest and most effective methods that can be added to a company’s safety program is aggressive air purification. Some of today’s advanced air purifiers can quickly reduce pathogen-levels in cold storage facilities and food processing environments by 3 to 5 log or more—without producing harmful by-products. That’s impressive, since each “log” of reduction stands for a 10-fold, or 90 percent reduction in bacteria numbers.
Such dramatic reductions weren’t possible as recently as a few years ago. Most traditional air purification systems use filters that are less effective or cleaning methods that are dangerous to humans.
Conversely, modern air purification technology works at the molecular level, pumping reactive oxygen species into the environment. The unstable nature of these reactive oxygen species allow them to combine with carbon-based molecules such as molds, bacteria, and other organic pathogens. This process of oxidation neutralizes the germs.
Better still, this type of air purification can run around the clock, and is harmless to humans. This maintains a constant state of cleanliness and reduces bacteria on exposed surfaces in a produce storage warehouse, food processing plant, tractor trailer, box car or supermarket display case.
Compare that to chemical processes, which can be harmful to humans, must be applied on-schedule, have limited efficacy, and can be resisted by mutating strains. That said, air purification is but one of many solutions that are more effective and efficient than established methods.
These include empowering food scientists, microbiologists and quality assurance experts in determining company operating procedures and making budgetary decisions. Virtually every respectable grower, food processor and retailer spends considerable sums to sustain minimum safety levels. But that doesn’t mean they’re spending money in the right places.
Involving scientific and QA experts can change that. For example, increased cleaning cycles might be more affordable and effective for a food processor than a new sanitation tool. On the other hand, a new packaging system might greatly reduce contamination by ensuring that food is always sealed tightly, safe from pathogens.
Experts have also helped retailers reduce the risk of spreading pathogens by facilitating investments in additional display cases, which better separates produce, meat, poultry, seafood and dairy prepared dishes. This reduces cross-contamination among foods that spoil on different timelines.
Consumers don’t stop to think that the pineapple in their cart was picked in a field in Costa Rica, the Philippines, Thailand, or some other foreign country, trucked to a port, loaded on a ship bound for America and then loaded on another truck that finally delivered the pineapple to their neighborhood market.
And they probably don’t worry whether the pineapple’s field of origin was irrigated with polluted water, or wonder if the people who handled the pineapples have sanitary lavatory and wash facilities. They don’t ask if the ship was shuttling live chickens alongside their pineapple cartons, or if that last truck was sanitized after its previous load.
No consumer can ever be sure about the safety of their food. Instead, they count on the world’s growers, processors, and retailers to take every precaution necessary to ensure the foods they put on their family’s plates are as fresh and clean as possible.
To continue deserving that trust, the produce and processing industries need to update safety standards for the 21st century food chain by continuously evaluating and adopting new safety measures.
Bob McDonald is president and CEO of AirOcare (Rockville, Md), a manufacturer of air purification and sanitation systems used in numerous industries. Reach him at 888-368-2232.