- THE MAGAZINE
- FOOD MASTER
Food-related epidemics not only compromise human health, they undermine public confidence in processed foods. Food manufacturers recognized the connection a century ago when they supported passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Today’s companies also are acutely aware of the need to rehabilitate a product’s image after an event. At the urging of the Western Growers Association, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) recently certified a leafy greens marketing agreement that would require farm food-safety inspections and traceability programs. “This is breaking new ground,” allows David E. Gumbas, vice president-science & technical affairs with the United Fresh Produce Association, “but it was felt that consumers had to be assured that everything that can be done, is being done.” If the program succeeds, “we believe a federal mandatory standard” will follow, he adds.
Those remedies are child’s play compared to the crisis-response (and prevention) planning underway in poultry. The potential for a global flu pandemic aided and abetted by commercial chicken farms has everyone on edge and has produced a model of cooperation and transparency. The flashpoint is H5N1, a highly pathogenic AI strain that can be transmitted from chickens to people. In the last four years, the World Health Organization has confirmed 265 human cases and 159 deaths in 10 countries. The fear is the virus will mutate for human-to-human transmission. In its present form, H5N1 could destroy national flocks and shut down export markets; in a mutated form, it could rival the Hong Kong flu of 1968 that killed a million, mostly young adults. To minimize the risk and protect their businesses, the poultry supply chain has weaved a network of competitors, public health authorities and food regulators to deal with AI and other biosecurity threats.
A broader food-industry effort to safeguard global animal and human health is beginning to gain traction. “The public-private partnerships of the stakeholders in poultry is transferable to other food systems,” believes Mike Robach, Cargill Inc.’s vice president-corporate food safety & regulatory affairs and board president of SSAFE (Safe Supply of Affordable Food Everywhere), a consortium that includes Nestle, Keystone Foods, McDonald’s and Yum Brands.
Yum Brands can attest to the economic costs of foodborne disease: the corporation saw a $20 million profit decline and a stock-price hit in the fourth quarter, when at least 71 customers of its Taco Bell restaurants became ill and 53 were hospitalized. E. coli 0157:H7 was the cause. FDA has not determined the source, though shredded lettuce was the suspected carrier.
While SSAFE is focused more on livestock practices, it is driven by recognition of the food chain’s disruptive potential in the global economy. The cost of resolving a 2002 foot-and-mouth outbreak in the UK was surpassed by the country’s loss in tourist dollars alone. SSAFE members hope to leverage their collective clout to reinforce the importance of science-based standards and practices with foreign suppliers and governments. “Organizations like OIE and Codex assist in crisis response,” explains Kere Kemp, vice president-global antimicrobial technology development at St. Paul, MN-based Ecolab Inc., a SSAFE participant. “Our role is more protective in getting ahead of the game to minimize risk.”
Tacking farm-level traceability, best-practices certification and other elements of food safety onto a produce-handler marketing agreement is unprecedented, a CDFA spokesman says, but California producers pushed for it to protect a business with an estimated $1.6 billion farmgate value. Within 16 days of the agreement’s introduction, 85% of leafy green producers had agreed to pay five cents a case to fund the initiative.
“It’s moving remarkably rapidly,” says Gumbas, with Florida tomato producers considering a similar program. When California was identified as the source of spinach with E. coli 0157:H7, producers in other regions began labeling the source of their spinach. “Everybody hated the ‘not from’ labeling,” Gumbas recalls. “Nobody wins with that.”
Mike Doyle, director of the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety, says the California initiative “may buy public confidence, but the interventions they’re taking have not been validated and probably will not be effective.” Three years ago, Doyle published research demonstrating the possibility for E. coli absorption by leafy greens, a danger widely cited last year. But Doyle’s lab results have never been replicated in the field. “Fundamental questions are begging for answers before we can come up with solutions,” he says. The recent promise by Fresh Express to provide up to $2 million to fund basic research should help determine if lettuce plants actually internalize pathogens and how technology should be deployed to minimize safety risks.
Both Gumbas and Doyle defend industry response to the spinach debacle. Until FDA collected and tested samples, the industry was relegated to the sidelines, they say. “This was the first produce outbreak where (FDA officials) were able to definitively identify the source of the contamination,” Doyle points out.
Defaulting to regulators while failing to enforce good agricultural practices has been the pattern for a system that clearly is broken, charges Doug Powell, scientific director of Kansas State University’s Food Safety Network. “It’s time to start marketing safety at the retail level,” the Manhattan, KS, educator says. “People say you can’t, but that’s the reason consumers buy organics.” Similarly, consumers who doubt US cattle is BSE-free are paying up to $60 a lb. for grass-fed beef.
Based on seven years of BSE surveillance data, USDA puts the likely number of infected cattle at from four to seven out of an adult population of 42 million. That makes the odds of being killed by lighting four times more likely than eating beef from a BSE-infected cow. The importance placed on rigorous monitoring demonstrated in France where detailed information on an animal’s diet and healthcare history “from the day cattle is born until it’s slaughtered” is maintained, says William D. Hueston, professor of veterinary population medicine at University of Minnesota and the creator of the SSAFE program. “The sad thing in the US is that we haven’t identified the business model that supports” the payback from data detail. Instead, “we have developed a homogenized beef commodity.”
Pathogen control has been the beef segment’s focus, and best practices advocated by the 10-year-old Beef Industry Food Safety Council have paid off with an 80% reduction in E. coli 0157:H7 cases since 2000. But federal efforts to institute animal ID programs in the US and Canada have stalled. Ironically, the beef segment is a victim of its own success: a national ear-tag program existed until the early 1980s as part of a tuberculosis and brucellosis eradication effort, recalls Hueston. Once those diseases were under control, federal funding for the ID program dried up.
How effectively the US would respond to a communicable disease outbreak is uncertain. There hasn’t been a reported hoof-and-mouth outbreak since the late 1920s. Not only cattle but goats, sheep and other livestock could be affected. GPS coordinates of those widely dispersed herds don’t exist, which would hamper any coordinated response. Audits for biosecurity compliance would run smack into regional differences. “Minnesota operators might agree to third-party audits,” confides Jean-Pierre Vaillancourt, a professor of veterinary medicine at Université de Montréal, “but they have a different attitude in Texas.”
The fallout from poor documentation is reflected in export statistics. The Japan and South Korea markets gradually are reopening since the 2003 Mad Cow incident, but 2005’s exports of 697 million lbs. remains well off 2003’s total of 2.52 billion lbs. Cattlemen brand it protectionism, but the absence of auditable animal histories doesn’t help their case.
In contrast, poultry exports have enjoyed mostly steady growth. Broiler shipments set a record in 2001 at 5.5 billion lbs., though the National Chicken Council forecasts a new high-water mark in 2008 of 5.6 billion. USDA’s Economic Research Service puts 10-year growth through 2005 at 39.4%.
Global food manufacturers, restaurants and others would like to see zoned or compartmentalized responses to food crises. Bans on an entire country’s supply of a product are too disruptive to the supply chain-and unnecessary if an effective response system is in place. Poultry is closer to realizing this objective than other segments, though a poorly contained AI outbreak would scuttle a zoned response. The average cost to sanitize and disinfect a farm after an AI incident is $71,000, Vaillancourt estimates. “The industry can take a hit from three farms, but if 50 or 100 are affected, there is no game plan to deal with it.”
An effective recall system is central to risk management. “When I audited, one of the first things I did was pick a random date and a random product and say, ‘I want you to tell me where this product went within the next four hours,’” says Ades. “You can’t afford to wait 24 hours when human life is on the line.”
That’s a stricter standard than FDA has settled on for Biosecurity Act compliance. The act also exempts farms, though the CDFA agreement aims to extend traceability to the farm level. Unless tracking systems are automated, cautions KSU’s Powell, they are doomed to failure. “A paper trail is pretty easy to cheat on,” he notes. Manual systems also are prone to error and are unlikely to pass muster with Wal-Mart, McDonald’s and other major customers who are moving aggressively to protect their brands with unannounced mock recalls.
“There’s regulatory compliance and customer compliance, and the second requires much more stringent proof,” says Beth Berndt, director-industry solutions, consumer products at Atlanta-based CDC Software. “Some processing already is being done in the field. We have to start collecting that information, and that will require mobile data-collection hardware.” The amount and level of supply-chain data that will have to be retained exceed the capacity of existing automation systems, Berndt believes. However, suppliers are laying the groundwork to maintain much more detailed records. CDC recently acquired MVI Technology, a UK technology firm, to fill that need. “We have to take data granularity as seriously as the life sciences do,” she insists.
Pathogenic produce, BSE and H5N1 bird flu are the advance troops in cross contamination cases and mutated microbes and viruses to come. There could be issues with a feedstock or antibiotic. A firm handshake and a solemn pledge to deliver safe food no longer is enough: major customers-McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, Japan or Korea-are saying, “No data, no sale.” Companies who lack data transparency and detail will find it increasingly difficult to compete in the global market.