Recent food safety problems should help our industry, not harm it.

Richard F. Stier

The food poisoning outbreak that occurred in September 2006 was traced to fresh-cut spinach grown in Salinas, CA. All totaled, there were over 200 confirmed illnesses and one death attributed to produce contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7. Hard on the heels of that outbreak were ones traced to several fast food and restaurant chains that also involved produce and E. coli 0157:H7.

Is our food supply becoming more unsafe? Or as a result of these cases, are we better able to trace the outbreaks?  Despite the problems caused, I hope these events will benefit both the industry and the public.
The average American pays less for food based on percent of earnings than almost anyone in the world. Our food supply is extremely diverse and that diversity is available throughout the year. There are foods that many people consider unhealthy, but no one is forcing anyone to buy them.
Since food is plentiful and relatively inexpensive in this country, industry and the public should work together. But consumers do not turn to industry for nutritional, safety or production information. The primary sources are the internet and the news media, many of which are flawed.
Late last year, I chatted with a number of non-food people about food and food safety education. The prevailing theme was a desire to know that the food that they are buying is safe and wholesome. In most cases, the average consumer has no idea how food processors ensure safety and wholesomeness.
In the spinach outbreak, the company involved was able to track the affected product back to the field where it was grown. That is a vast improvement in how the industry addresses problems compared to the recent past.
The food processing industry must be proactive in trumpeting how they procure, process and package foods, and what they do to ensure that those products are safe and wholesome. Many companies believe that if they publish this information they are asking for legal problems.
Food processors should tell consumers which producers they buy from and how these growers practice good agricultural practices, utilize integrated pest management, ensure equipment is properly cleaned and sanitized and use HACCP or similar programs to identify and control food hazards.

Bill Marler, one of the nation’s leading foodborne illness attorneys and a principle at Marler Clark law firm, wrote an article for Food Protection magazine called “Put Me Out of Business.” The food industry would love to put you out of business, Bill.
If you think your company can do more to ensure food safety, but it is not supported by management, invite the Marler Clark team to address your facility. If hearing them talk doesn’t shake things up, nothing will.