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The Modern Age of Food Quality and Safety
by Mark A. DeSorbo
What was the world of food quality and safety like 10 years ago? It's a question that is pondered as easily as what the next decade will bring. After a series of ups and downs, the values of safety and quality have muscled to the forefront, but there is still work to be done.
Ten years ago, HACCP was the pale horse, the agency that sat upon it was FDA and hell came with it. The Nutrition Facts Label had also just been introduced to give consumers detailed dietary information, and the proliferation of microbiology labs ushered science into food processing companies as a top priority after federal regulators called for baseline testing.
That wasn’t all that the quality assurance and control sector of the food and beverage industry was experiencing a decade ago. The North American food and beverage industry was reeling and undergoing a metamorphosis that was sparked by a series of unfortunate events that many still, to this day, cringe at the very thought of.
In fact, the early to mid 1990s was a time of great growing pains for an industry that was essentially exposed by the media, which churned out story after story on outbreaks and untimely deaths from E. coli and Salmonella. The coverage brought consumer awareness to an all time high, and it forced suppliers, processors, retailers and regulators to change virtually everything about the food industry.
“After that incident in 1993, when the children from the Northwest died, we started looking for ways to kill that bug,” says Eldon Roth, founder and chairman of Beef Products Inc., a Dakota Dunes, S.D., beef processor and winner of the 2004 Food Quality Award.
From Sovereignty to Globalization
What Beef Products did was indicative of how the United States and Europe tackled the consumer- and regulatory-imposed paradigm shifts. Most food companies and regulatory agencies took the challenges head on; and so began a new era of food quality.
“Over the last 10 years, the biggest change was in the worldwide attitude towards globalization of the food supply,” says Kevin Huttman, president of DuPont Qualicon (Wilmington, Del.). “What that’s led to is making sure that the consolidated industry players now have good processes and controls in place to safeguard and sustain their brand image and to ensure they are meeting ever-increasing demands by the consumer for higher quality and safer foods.”
A decade ago, he says, food quality and safety were considered costs, necessary evils, to food companies. “Food companies have now changed their attitude,” Huttman says. “They see it as a way to increase productivity and bottom-line profits.”
Ten years ago also marked a time of transformation for European nations. The newly formed European Union (EU), now a major force in worldwide food quality and safety, was struggling to find its identity in order to establish a unified food code as it battled the elusive bovine spongiform encephalopathy, mad cow disease, and later, a foot-and-mouth epidemic that compounded to a loss of confidence in the food supply.
Meanwhile, a new understanding and awareness of the importance of foodborne disease was developing, as Laurian J. Unnevehr, a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, points out in “Food Safety and Food Quality.” The paper was penned in 2001 for “A 2020 Vision for Food, Agriculture, and the Environment,” an International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) initiative.
The result, Unnevehr explains, was that food safety and quality are more important issues for the world’s consumers, who increasingly demand greater safety assurances from food producers and regulators. This increased awareness coincides with the identification of new pathogens and their potential long-term consequences, coupled with better surveillance and trace-back techniques.
By the 1990s, many industrialized countries had already introduced new, more stringent food safety standards, such as mandatory process controls to reduce risks throughout the production process.
“Meeting these standards for higher food safety and quality poses a challenge to less developed countries as they seek to expand agricultural exports,” Unnevehr wrote. “While such exports can provide an important source of income for the rural poor, meeting higher standards can require additional management, capital investments, purchased inputs, monitoring and certification.”
The 1990s did yield progress. The gospel according to HACCP spread like wildfire worldwide. The NASA-born protocol, which was first only required of seafood processing facilities, is also now a must for juice manufacturers and is recommended at the retail level and for meat and poultry processors by federal agencies.
“HACCP has evolved into an overriding principle for the entire food chain, from raw materials, processing, distribution, restaurants to the regulatory community,” says Darren Blass, director of quality assurance and product safety for Jack in the Box Inc. (San Diego, Calif.).
In 1996, more stringent meat inspection procedures were put in place by USDA, and the FDA approved the irradiation of meat. A year later, the FDA’s Modernization Act brought forth regulations for food health claims. By 2001, Europe opted for the American Way when the EU established the European Food Authority, an agency similar in focus to the FDA and USDA.
And innovations in technology seemed to blossom from the woodwork. ATP technologies, combined with HACCP and SSOPs, bettered food processing plant hygiene and upped traceabilities that aimed to stop contamination and illness in its tracks. Rapid microbiology methods began to emerge as well, promising a speedier path to specificity.
While there is still a tremendous reliance on classical microbiology methods, the appreciation for specialty diagnostic tools grew immensely.
“I’ve noticed a steadily growing appreciation of the cost and time benefits of pre-measured or pre-sterilized laboratory products, which, by definition are disposable,” says Fred Weber, president of Weber Scientific (Hamilton, N.J.). “There is a tremendous demand on the laboratory to do more with less, and this enhances their ability to do more work with fewer resources by having these pre-measured and pre-sterilized combinations of products.”
Diagnostic technologies most certainly helped facilitate the two largest meat recalls in USDA history. The first was 19 million pounds of ConAgra ground beef tainted with E. coli that was recalled in July 2002. The second occurred in October 2002 when Pilgrim’s Pride (Pittsburgh, Texas) initiated a nationwide recall of 27 million pounds of poultry products for Listeria monocytogenes contamination from its subsidiary, Wampler Foods (Franconia, Pa.).
The importance of traceability reached a higher level of importance after terrorists decided to fly planes into New York City skyscrapers. At the time of this report, departing Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson set off alarms, saying he worries “every single night” about the possibility of a bioterrorist attack on the nation’s food supply.
“Since 9/11, after the country realized that it not only was the food industry facing natural threats, but potential man-made threats, that raised the level of awareness in the minds of senior level managers,” says Rick Biros, publisher of Food Quality and president of Carpe Diem Communications Inc. (Yardley, Pa.) “They started paying attention, and now three years later, they have all found quality religion. They see the light. In many cases, their existing quality assurance program was preventing natural threats and these same programs can protect them from man-made threats just by making a few slight alterations.”
The intent on protecting the food supply was intensified last August when the Bioterrorism Act of 2002 went into full effect. Owners, operators or agents of domestic and foreign facilities that manufacture, process, pack or hold food for human or animal consumption in the United States must now register with the FDA. The agency also requires prior notice of all shipments of human or animal food imported or offered for importation.
The Changing Quality Management System
Import notification, traceability and the imminent requirement of country of origin labels are changes that are molding the quality management system of the future, say Lawrence and Mary Ann Platt, a husband and wife team who run RQA Inc. and CNS/FOODSAFE, two Darien, Ill., firms that help keep a variety of manufacturers and retail operations on the quality-and-safety straight and narrow.
The Bioterrorism Act, the Platts say, is perhaps the newest in a long line of adjustments for the food industry that all add up to identity preservation.
“Companies want assurances that everything from the seeds in the ground all the way through the final product has been audited, certified, checked, and that there are documents that say this has been done, says Lawrence Platt, president of RQA. “So, identity preservation is going to be a very large activity in the next few years.”
When contacted by Food Quality, the Platts had their hands full with 10 recalls. On a daily basis, they see a variety of things that were somewhat afterthoughts five to 10 years ago, but are now areas of contention that can potentially obliterate identity and brand preservation.
Aside from the regulatory influence, testing methodology and rapid microbiology methods are much better these days, and this has created a greater public awareness of emerging pathogens, allergens, labeling and cross contamination.
That awareness, Mary Ann Platt says, has increased the tendency for litigation when damage is done.
“After the Jack in the Box incident, it brought what could happen to the forefront,” she says. “It created a different level of consumer awareness. Then, you saw lawyers identifying this as an opportunity area and then you started to see some awards in court.”
The Seattle, Wash., law firm, Marler Clark, aggressively pursues foodborne illness and food-related lawsuits. At the time of this report, the Web site, www.marlerclark.com, had a number of news items ranging from “Men suing Chi-Chi’s for Hepatitis Soup” to “How Safe is Cafeteria Food?”
The Web site also sponsored numerous links, one of which was Outbreak Inc., a Seattle consulting company based on “a radical notion that the same lawyers who sue on behalf of victims of foodborne illness are best suited to help responsible companies” with food safety challenges.
The threat of litigation isn’t the only thing shaping the quality management system of the future, and over the last five years, there has also been a reemphasis on protocols to ensure recalls are implemented correctly.
Insurance companies that sell recall insurance are contracting companies like RQA to conduct pre-policy assessment for contaminated product or recall coverage. Essentially, the insurance companies require a due diligence from food companies to ensure a recall plan is in place and that it functions correctly in the event of an incident.
“A lot of times, a company has a recall plan, but it can’t execute it, so it has us go in prior to the policy and verify that. And if there are gaps, we assist those companies to make the plans work. Then, we verify the execution by doing a mock recall,” Lawrence Platt adds.
“There’s much more of an effort going toward preventive activities and crisis planning versus actually just having a problem with a product and getting it back,” he says, adding that Europe has mandated that companies selling products in the European market must have a recall plan.
The Next Chapter
So what will the next 10 years bring for food quality and safety?
Presently, there was some degree of regulatory cross-pollination going on between the food and pharmaceutical industries. The food industry has found that certain portions of protocols, like 21 CFR Part 11, which deals with electronic record and documents, can be applied in food plants. The interest on the part of the pharmaceutical industry has been piqued and it is now asking, “What’s HACCP?”
Mary Ann Platt had a personal account of this in 1984 when she was the director of quality assurance for NutraSweet.
“NutraSweet came out of Searle, a pharmaceutical company. From the very beginning, it was handled like a pharmaceutical ingredient,” she says. “In the mid 1980s, we already had the systems and procedures in place that you really only started seeing 10 years later in the food industry. They had pharmaceutical origins, so we just needed to see what was applicable and how we could modify the needs to our business models.”
In the near future, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO; Geneva, Switzerland) is set to release the ISO 22000 Food Safety Management Standard. Slated for publication in early 2005, it will define the requirements of a food safety management system covering all organizations in the food chain from farmers to catering, including packaging.
“There has been a worldwide proliferation of third party HACCP and food safety standards developed both by national standards organizations and industry groups. ISO 22000 aims to harmonize all of these standards,” the global standards body indicates. While this is a long-awaited milestone, there is still work to be done.
Food safety and quality cannot stop at the processor or supplier levels. There needs to be the same commitment at the retail level, from grocery stores to restaurants to institutional food service operations, says Henry Carsberg, a columnist for Food Quality and a food safety consultant.
“The FDA is really going to start looking at these folks because the processors are under HACCP, SSOPs and GMPs. They are just loaded with protocols, but there is some finger pointing going on,” Carsberg explains. “The processors are starting to say, ‘What about the [customer] who has to buy a piece of fish out of a stinky case, with dirty ice and blood in it?’ The food service industry says just because someone gets sick doesn’t mean it was because of us. It’s time for them to get out of this self-denial.”
That ethic also needs to go global, especially in developing countries as Professor Unnevehr from the University of Illinois talked about.
“It used to be that food safety and food quality testing was extremely focused towards the United States,” says DuPont Qualicon’s Huttman. “But being such a global economy, people in Shanghai are demanding a higher degree of quality and safety in their food. You see it in New Delhi and San Paolo, Brazil.”
At the manufacturing level, the future will bring faster, easier, online, real-time testing, he says. “I don’t think we’ll see it in the near future, unless someone invents the tricorder like Bones had on Star Trek,” Huttman adds. “There needs to be more standardized, automated and easier methods to ensure that, as the VP of QA, you can go home and sleep well at night.”
At the food service level, however, especially in developing countries, he says food quality and safety will mean testing workers for Hepatitis A, which can easily be passed through food, as well as bar-coding systems to monitor hand-washing.
These types of interventions, Huttman says, will solidify “standard operating procedures where food is prepared for the consumer.” Without such protocols, he says, all of the steps that ensured the quality and safety of food products delivered to the door of a restaurant or grocery store would have been for nothing. –FQ