Confronting Food Safety Risks

By Christine, Brian | Risk Management, September 1994 | Go to article overview

Confronting Food Safety Risks


Christine, Brian, Risk Management


If the adage "You are what you eat" is true, then everyone should hope the food they consume is safe and nutritious. Yet recent outbreaks of foodborne illnesses such as a deadly strain of E. coli bacteria have generated public concern and even accusations from consumer groups that the U.S. food supply is dangerously unsafe. Whether the discussion focuses on potential pathogens such as E. coli or the use of pesticides in agriculture, food safety is likely to remain an important issue for the food industry and U.S. consumers.

In the United States, foodborne illness is "a major cause of personal distress, preventable death and economic burden," stated Fred R. Shank, director for the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Speaking recently before the U.S. House of Representatives, Mr. Shank noted that "The FDA estimates that 24 to 81 million people become ill from microorganisms in food, resulting in 9,000 deaths every year." The annual cost of foodborne illness is estimated to be between $7.7 billion and $23 billion, he added.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia reports that more than 250 diseases are caused by contaminated food or beverages. Epidemiological data has determined the most important foodborne hazards are microbial, including Salmonella, Campylobacter, Listeria and E. coli 0157:H7, as well as other pathogens. "However, while foods of animal origin are more often associated with infectious foodborne diseases, other vehicles also transmit these infections," said Mr. Shank. "And data suggest that even though most foodborne diseases could be controlled by careful attention to safe food handling practices in the kitchen, they are not; consequently, risk reductions at every point from farm to table are needed to prevent foodborne disease."

New Food Risks

FOODBORNE ILLNESSES are caused by a complex interaction between the food eaten, the contaminant and the physical health of the consumer, noted Mr. Shank. And although food safety in the United States is generally sound, several developments are creating new risks in the food supply. First, the United States now imports 30 tons of food annually from foreign countries, where basic sanitation may be lacking. In addition, "new food processing and packaging technologies such as the use of modified atmosphere to prolong the shelf life and maintain the quality of vegetables may enable anaerobic organisms, including human pathogens, to proliferate," says Mr. Shank. The aging U.S. population and increase in persons with weakened immune systems is also creating a higher risk for foodborne illness.

Historically, the cornerstone of the FDA's food safety programs has been its emphasis on periodic visual inspection of food facilities, supplemented by product testing. This approach, in place since the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act was modernized in 1938, should be updated again, says Mr. Shank. "This approach was effective for its time, but it is relatively resource-intensive and has been criticized as being inefficient in today's world." For example, inspections can reveal the conditions in a food plant at the time of the inspection, but do not determine if the company operates safely over the long-term. The inspection system is also based on a reactive, not preventive, mode that focuses on detecting and correcting problems only after they occur.

The HACCP Procedures

WHAT'S NEEDED IS a new approach, declared Mr. Shank. "The FDA believes it is time to consider improvements in the system and to adopt a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) approach to food safety," he said. HACCP procedures, currently used for seafood, incorporate scientific analyses of potential hazards, methods for determining the foods in which they occur, and measures for preventing these problems, notes Richard J. Ronk, director for product policy at the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

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