Welcoming speakers and attendees from some of the world’s most recognizable food brands and technology developers, the fifth annual Food Technology Innovation & Safety Forum ensued in Chicago on Tuesday and Wednesday last week. On schedule: two full days of discussion on new developments in the food business and the direction technological innovations may take it next.
Among the 35 seminars arranged by the forum’s organizer, World Trade Group, topics of interest ranged from strategies for winning over the new demographic of eater — “the post-recession consumer” — to plans for meeting Food Safety Modernization Act standards and an in-depth examination of food defense and bioterrorism. The roster of speakers included representatives from organizations such as public health nonprofit NSF International, farming coop brand Organic Valley, and PepsiCo.
Despite the variety of speakers and topics, a few common messages emerged from the forum that suggest many in the industry are striving to improve the nutritional value and safety of their food alongside their profits, and they are seeking out new technological innovations — from ingredient substitutes to new pathogen detection methods — to do so.
Almost invariably, speakers catered their presentations to business-minded attendees, and several directly addressed food safety as a top concern for their companies–or in the case of some technology developers, the singular focus of their work.
For the past five years, food safety stories have received more publicity in media than any other food-related topic. Recent polls estimate that 76 percent of U.S. adults view food safety as at least somewhat of a concern, with 93 percent believing food suppliers should be held legally responsible in cases of foodborne illness.
Jorge Hernandez, senior vice president of food safety quality for U.S. Foodservice, introduced these statistics during the first food safety seminar of the conference, calling food safety the paramount issue for his company, the nation’s second largest food distributor.
Hernandez focused his presentation on the observation that the majority of food safety scrutiny falls on food growers and processors, while the transporters in the supply often go unnoticed. The problem, he said, is that the largely unregulated transportation of food provides ample opportunity for contamination.
“Basically, anybody with a truck can become a food distributor,” Hernandez said. “That’s a very big concern, and with that follows infrastructure: While some have a very sophisticated infrastructure to maintain [product] separation, implement cold chain, [and do] all of the things that make sure food gets safely from point A to B, others do not.”
A mandate in this year’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) requires the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to establish safety standards for food transportation, but until those are written, the responsibility rests on the suppliers themselves. Hernandez highlighted concerns over conditions in which some growers might transport food sold locally, possibly using truck beds or the back seats of minivans, where chances of contamination are much higher than in controlled shipping environments.
He also detailed steps U.S. Foodservice and other companies have taken to help prevent contamination during transport–ranging from cold storage in trucks to food safety training for transporters–and said he hoped to see all food distributors regardless of size adopting verifiably safe transportation practices under the FSMA if they have not already.
Later that day, Anthony Bashall, executive vice president of Hollison Technologies, introduced his company’s technological approach to better detecting microbiological contaminants between each segment of the shipment from farm to fork.
Hollison, with its patent on “Continuous Sampling Systems,” intends to eliminate the current industry practice of “grab sampling” small representative clusters of raw foods to check for contaminants, replacing it with a method that constantly checks the entirety of the crop as it moves from one stage of distribution to the next. The company has initially designed their technology to screen dry, bulk goods such as peanuts, coffee beans, cereals and pet kibble.
In many foods, possible contaminants persist in small, localized areas among a bulk shipment. This makes detecting contaminants via grab sampling a “roulette game,” as Bashall described it–a probability of roughly 1:100,000 that one will be found in a large shipment. In the U.S., where a fast food cheeseburger can contain ingredients from more than 50 countries, this can lead to countless opportunities for contamination.
With Hollison’s invention, instead of screening a 30-pound sample of wheat from a 50,000 bushel load, distributors can scan all 50,000 bushels worth as it free-falls, blows, or gets sucked from one area to another. While Bashall could not elaborate on the technical aspects of the equipment during the half-hour presentation, he did say a proof-of-concept trial and tests in real processing plants had proven its successful application.
The forum’s second day opened with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s deputy director discussing the 2010 dietary guidelines for Americans, followed by a panel on health claims in food labeling. Ashley Kerman, director of product management and recalls at consulting firm Inmar, delivered a seminar on preparing companies for recalls, stressing the importance for food producers to create recall plans regardless of their size or degree of confidence in ability to avoid outbreaks.
With the advent of the FSMA, the FDA will now have the authority to enforce recalls of contaminated food, granting all the more reason for companies to prepare actions ahead of time, Kerman said. Strong recall plans include preparations for concise notifications, trained call center personnel, infrastructure for swift product retrieval and refunds to stores, and resources to make reports to the authorities on a regular basis.
Later in the day, attendees heard more about a topic closely linked to food recalls: when Shaun Kennedy, director of the National Center for Food Protection and Defense, spoke at length about food defense and bioterrorism.
Today, the U.S. receives food from more sources outside its borders than inside. Kennedy argued that while the country imports everything from Australian beef to Kazakhstani wheat gluten, it opens itself to innumerable avenues for outside contamination, either through potentially negligent foreign safety regulation or deliberate intent to harm.
Basing projections off the 2006 E. coli spinach outbreak, Kennedy postulated that intentional sabotages to food could cause severe impacts to national health before being detected. From the first reported illness in the 2006 case, 26 days passed before the spinach was finally recalled — a full 10 days past the product’s expiration date — resulting in more than 100 reported illnesses prior to recall.
“This is typical in many of our episodic foodborne illness outbreaks: By the time we realize there’s an event, it’s over,” Kennedy said. “For food safety, that’s bad enough. For food defense, it’s particularly worse because of the potential mortality associated with the agents of concern.”
Kennedy noted that the U.S. receives food imports from a number of countries with whom it has diplomatic disagreements, such as Iran, which exports juice. In other cases, such as the walnuts the U.S. receives from Kyrgyzstan, countries may not have any real food safety authority to verify exported products as safe to consume.
This year’s Food Technology Innovation & Safety Forum disbanded shortly after that note, closing with a sense that the industry
may truly head toward its continual goals to improve nutrition and safety. Whether companies are spurred that direction by feelings of moral responsibility, consumer pressure or profit margins, the end result should taste the same.