After all the increased safety procedures put in place over the past decade, one might have been lulled into thinking that poisonings and deaths from food contamination would be rarer than before. While it is true that the new regulatory requirements and better processing techniques have helped, the continuing breakdowns in food safety are still worrying.
Regulators and industry need to take a second breath and forge ahead on working more closely on better rules and processes that can drastically cut down on the number of such incidents. Multiple food poisonings -- and the occasional death -- still occur with alarming frequency.
Last year Eurosurvelliance, the EU's cross-border warning network, recorded 691 alerts about bad foods. That's a 52 per cent jump in the number of alerts over the previous year. Alerts record incidents of contaminated food or feed that may have crossing into other members' borders. Another 1,897 information notices, a 2 per cent rise, recorded incidents that remained contained within an individual country, or arrived as exports to the bloc and were stopped at its borders.
The weekly alerts keep coming. In September this year E. coli laden meat products in the UK led to 161 people falling sick and the death of a boy. A processor was shut down and is now under investigation. In the same month a Spanish cooked chicken processor owned by Dutch-based Nutreco was found to have poisoned 2,700 people with salmonella. Two weeks ago, a food poisoning outbreak in France left 18 people seriously ill after they ate meat made by Soviba and bought at a supermarket. Farther afield, three people in Jamaica died earlier this month after injesting a fruit-flavoured health drink donated by US company EAS.
With the increased regulatory reporting of outbreaks along the supply chain the public has become much more aware of the problem bad food processing and handling can cause. Tracebility technology and improved science means pathogen trackers can pinpoint where the problems stemmed, putting the focus rightly on the culprits.
BSE, foot-and-mouth disease, and now bird flu, overhang all the individual alerts as everpresent threats. The food industry needs to understand that safety has grown from the sporadic scares into a huge area of consumer concern, concludes Packaged Facts, a consumer market analyst that found a quarter of those surveyed in the US classified themselves either as "highly aware", concerned, and actively avoiding foods and food sources they believe to be unsafe.
Consumers are educating themselves about major food issues, such as allergens, contamination and spoilage, growing and processing practices, and ingredient content such as GMOs. Increased awareness is affecting how and where consumers are spending their food dollars.
So what more can industry and regulators do to prevent bad food getting in the chain? In the EU, the simplification of the bloc's hygiene laws should make things easier for processors to comply with food safety regulations. A package of five hygiene laws is due to come into effect in two months, aiming to merge and harmonise the current thicket of requirements currently scattered over seventeen directives.
With these in place regulators and industry need to work on other types of improvements. They need to create a better system of learning how and why breakdowns in safety occur.
First the EU rapid alert system needs to be as quick in reporting incidents as the US Food and Drug Administration seems to be. Currently the Eurosurvelliance only makes public a weekly roundup of incidents. Publishing needs to be done as soon as an incident becomes known, a occurs as in the case of the FDA, and not after it gets reported by the media. The failure of some regulators to be more transparent and to react more speedily when dealing with food contamination outbreaks is also a problem that needs more cooperative action.
Regulators and industry also need to have a means of learning from their past problems. More analysis and follow up, such as is done internally by individual regulators, need to be communicated EU-wide about problems in the processing of products that may be of use to other manufacturers.
Industry also needs to cooperate internally more with each other about techniques they can use. Big companies have the resources and money to spend on ensuring their techniques and supply chains are as safe as can be. Smaller companies need a helping hand.
The EU's food and drink association 'living' document on acrylamide is a great example of how such information sharing can help. The document, which has been three years in development, contains the collective knowledge of the industry by outlining a set of successful procedures on reducing acrylamide formation during manufacturing processes. It will continue to be regularly updated as new techniques are developed to reduce the potential carcinogen in carbohydrate- rich foods cooked at high temperatures.
A broader range of other food safety issues need to be addressed in this way.
Another answer may lie in the US FDA's proposed approach as outlined in a report on revising the country's Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) regulation for the food industry. The FDA wants to make food executives more responsible for the safety of the products.
The proposals would hold companies and their managers to account in ensuring they follow through on implementing tougher food safety requirements throughout their processing and packaging procedures.The regulator calls for new rules requiring companies to appropriately train supervisors and workers to ensure that they have the necessary knowledge and expertise to produce safe food products. Processors would also be required to have a written pathogen control programme geared for the risks particular to their plants and products.
Microbiological monitoring and record keeping are part of the package to judge the effectiveness of the programme to identify the root cause of sanitation failures and to document corrective actions. The FDA also wants new rules requiring that food processors develop and maintain written sanitation procedures that define the scope, objective, management responsibility, monitoring, corrective action, and record keeping associated with a company's procedures.
Above all top bosses would be required to sign off on all the procedures. Making the management responsibility chain legally clear sounds like an idea whose time has come for the food industry.