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Food Safety: The Industry Must Take Ownership

With the ongoing economic crisis there has been a need for governments across the globe to cut budgets. Food safety lacks the tangible benefits of, say, health care and it was somewhat inevitable that food inspection agencies would experience the brunt of such cutbacks.

In the United Kingdom, the Food Safety Agency that was established in the wake of the “mad cow” disease outbreak, amongst other food safety scares, was essentially dismantled with its portfolio being returned to Ministry of Agriculture (DEFRA).

In Canada, the number of CFIA inspectors was increased following the listeriosis outbreak of 2008 in which contaminated deli meats resulted in 20 deaths. However, the Canadian government is now cutting over 200 inspectors in a bid to save $25 million from the federal budget.

In the United States, the cutbacks have been deeper, with over 260 USDA offices being closed for a savings of $150 million per year.

In reaction, many consumer groups, the press and unions have pronounced the cutbacks as placing the public in danger through the governments neglecting their responsibilities.

The old question is thus posed: Does more government involvement, specifically in relation to inspector numbers, lead to a more effective food safety system?

A similar question is posed by criminologists in relation to police numbers and crime rates. Those on one side of the argument use statistics to show that an increase in police numbers results in decreased crime rates. However, what is missed is that an increase in policing is commonly preceded by a major event, such as 9/11 or when pre-existing crime levels are high.

In other studies, where no major event has occurred, it has been found that there is no correlation between police on the ground and crime rates.

The theory goes that high numbers of police on the ground lead to an increased level of crime detection but do little to prevent crime from occurring. As sociologists will indicate, crime rates are mostly affected by the environment, such as socio-economic factors and community cohesion – in effect the existing culture. To take the argument further, it is thought that increasing the level of policing can bring a siege-like atmosphere to a community and negatively affect the community cohesion.

Returning to food safety, we can make parallels between the effect of policing on crime rates and superimpose on the number of food inspectors and foodborne illness outbreaks. 

Specifically, inspector numbers increase or reorganization of agencies occurs following a major foodborne illness outbreak.

Yet, what is missed is that in the event of an outbreak, it is the industry response that is primarily responsible for enhancing food safety and not visits by an army of food inspectors. Nevertheless, food inspection does play a major role in containing outbreaks and follow-up investigations, although this is different from prevention.    

Industry-led initiatives are the only way to enhance food safety

In the 1980s, there was a diverse range of food safety issues of concern. Foodborne illness rates were increasing, virulent pathogens such as E. coli O157 were taking hold, not to mention the BSE and problems with the emergence of drug-resistant microbes.

In response, a directive from President Clinton’s administration set to prioritize food safety risks, reduce red tape and bureaucracy. The directive essentially empowered the industry to take responsibility for food safety by introducing HACCP, amongst other initiatives.

There is little debate that the initiatives were highly successful in reducing the incidence of foodborne illness with a progressive decrease in numbers since implementation.

A more recent example of industry-led initiatives is in relation to the use of antibiotics in animal production. Antibiotics have been commonly used in animal production to prevent infections, thereby leading to high growth rates. However, a negative effect of antibiotics has been the emergence of lethal antibiotic strains of pathogens such as Salmonella, amongst others.

The FDA has debated the banning of antibiotics for promoting animal growth for over 30 years. In late 2011, the FDA somewhat unexpectedly stepped back from banning antibiotics in animal production, which is counter to the actions taken over in the EU.

Many commentators saw this as a capitulation of the FDA to the lobbying pressure from the meat industry. However, the reality is that the meat industry has been proactive in reducing the use of antibiotics in animal production on the understanding that a staged reduction is required. Of course, this is not well-publicized but illustrates that only a successful antibiotic reduction program can be achieved if led by industry and not by government. 

Empowerment of food safety is the key

The empowerment of industry to self-regulate always comes under criticism in the event of a foodborne illness outbreak. The knee-jerk reaction always appears to be more testing, more inspectors, more agencies etc.

In many ways, “tinkering” with the food safety system by government hinders the progress that has been made since 1995. Ultimately, industry-led initiatives will always be the most effective approach to improve food safety. Consequently, rather than increasing government inspection a more productive strategy is how to remove the weak links in the chain to prevent outbreaks from occurring in the first place.

Such a strategy is far from straightforward, as there is a need to understand the underlying basis for decisions made that ultimately led to critical errors of judgment in foodborne illness outbreaks.

For example, why do processors send out product known to be contaminated or perform practices that represent obvious food safety risks? In a broad sense, it can be proposed that the actions are through ignorance (lack of knowledge is perhaps a better term) of the risk, economic factors or, in a relatively low number of instances, bioterrorism or criminal intent.

Ironically, it is the latter group who have the greatest perception of empowerment given they are controlling events.  In contrast, those that lack knowledge may have good intentions in producing high quality products, although fail to see the consequences. It is almost akin to a thought pattern of “nobody told me not to do it.”

The current trend of clean labels, along with producers of organic products, can be classed in this group, where attempts to produce additive-free foods leads to food safety risks (for example, omitting nitrites to control Clostridium botulinum).  Also included in this group are food handlers, quality assurance personnel and management whose main focus is to produce product as fast as possible with little thought of ownership or empowerment.

Workers have a tendency to lack empowerment, as they are told what to do and when to do it. This ultimately leads to a disconnect between the product and food safety. In the processing environment, workers are judged on how quickly the product can be processed regardless if the production line is producing ready-to-eat deli meat, cars or paper-clips.

Even if food violations occur, there is little incentive for the worker to raise concerns or to be empowered to make suggestions. When visiting processing plants, I sometimes ask the workers if they consume the products produced in the facility. In the majority of cases, the answer is no, due to their prior knowledge of the history of the product. Clearly those workers have a disconnect or lack of ownership with the product.

Akin to when the industry is highly regulated by government, the l
ack of empowerment by food workers throughout an organization ultimately leads to essentially passing-the-buck when it comes to food safety – an “it is not my problem” attitude.

It could be argued that empowerment is encompassed in the concept of a food safety culture. Yet “food safety culture” remains a relatively woolly term that lacks the nuts-and-bolts on how to change the behavior of those working in the food industry. There is frequent reference to increasing knowledge by training. However, knowledge and empowerment are very different. 

Frank Yiannas introduced the term food safety culture, and noted the major challenges in changing worker behavior – after all, it does take a generation. Still every road starts with a first step and rather than look at the loss of government inspectors as entering the Dark Age we should look at this as an opportunity for industry to be empowered to take food safety initiatives to the next level.

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Dr. Keith Warriner is an Associate Professor within the Department of Food Science at University of Guelph, Canada.

© Food Safety News
  • CindyM

    This article tells me it’s not only up to the Industry to create the “Food Safety Culture”, but to empower their employees through knowledge of best practices. It’s the employees who are on most involved in the production of food… not management.

  • http://Google TP

    People management – Excellent article.
    But you have used the unspeakable word “empowerment”
    “Workers have a tendency to lack empowerment, as they are told what to do and when to do it.”
    “nobody told me not to do it.”
    “it is not my problem” attitude.”
    “There is frequent reference to increasing knowledge by training. However, knowledge and empowerment are very different.”

  • M. “Mike” Mychajlonka, Ph. D.

    Dr. Warriner is to be commended for writing a well-balanced article that raises the concept of empowerment as it relates to food safety. However, a stakeholder very much in need of empowerment seems to have been left out of consideration – the consumer. It is true that one may look at governmental regulators as representing the interests of the consumer. The problem with that is that regulators may find themselves hamstrung in their efforts because of lack of funding. The food industry has a clear interest in food safety because any lapse of food safety may impact their brand and therefore sales. Yet, recent history does not seem to lack examples of such lapses. Meanwhile, should the consumer merely adopt the passive role of ultimate lab rat?

  • Ray

    William Kanitz, the food safety speaker at the Atlantic Coast Agricultural Convention in NJ last month made an excellent statement of how to express and understand what food safety means. He said not cleaning and sanitizing food equipment from harvest buckets to knives and RPC’s is like eating your breakfast, lunch and dinner every day from the same plate without washing it after every use. This turned on a light bulb in a lot of us. When a food facility operator doesn’t care about how dirty the equipment his workers are using, why should they care about it? The weakest link in the chain (the worker) can’t make a difference. For example when 100 pickers are sent to a field to harvest vegetables with harvest buckets only pressure washed once a year, does somebody seriously expect that one of the workers, afraid of losing his job, would stand up and say something? No, but he wouldn’t eat the product either.

  • federal microbiologist

    The December 2011 / January 2012 issue of ‘Food Safety’ magazine, a trade journal, has an very good article by Will Daniels, the VP at Earthbound Farm in California.
    The article, titled ‘Nationwide Produce Outbreak: A Moment You Never Forget’, is about how Daniels and his company reacted to the EHEC outbreak in 2006 associated with raw, packaged spinach leaves.
    Daniels discusses how he and his employees reviewed their processing and handling of spinach and other produce, and how they went about implementing improved food safety testing and QA / QC regimens. It’s very much a ‘nuts and bolts’ look at how one company responded to a potentially disastrous food safety issue, and it is definitely worth reading.
    The article is [freely] available at:
    http://www.foodsafetymagazine.com/article.asp?id=4376&sub=sub1

  • http://w Peter Cocotas

    Obviously government can move things along. An example is the Seafood HACCP regulations which forced the seafood industry which thought of itself as an extension of the fishing industry to confront the reality that they were processors.
    A good example of an industry initiative is the California Almond Board which after salmonella outbreaks required all almonds to be sold in the US to be pasteurized and that all processes and equipment for same be validated by third party process authorities.
    In both cases success is guaranteed only be the initiative and integrity of the processors and independent verification.

  • Emily Warren

    The government is making said budget cuts because of the well known economic crisis the world is undergoing right now, and their target is the food industry. At first it scared me to think that they would choose to cut inspectors and potentially put the public in danger, but I don’t think they are neglecting their responsibilities. The publisher had an interesting viewpoint that helped me come to terms with this news, that if policing is higher then crimes are lower, but if policing is higher it is normally for a reason or a problematic situation. So just like this with people it can be said of our food too, if a outbreak of some sorts occurs then they can reinstate the inspectors, because like it said they are mainly here to contain an outbreak not so much to prevent it. I don’t think our government would risk the health of its citizens, and i’m choosing to believe that if an outbreak occurs they will be ahead of the game.

  • Ajoy Daspurkayastha

    The cop when stopping a speeding vehicle first asks to see his/her driving license . The food safety cop when inspecting/auditing an erring food processing establishment never asks if they are qualified enough to become the food safety driver of that erring food processing establishment, since no where in the Food Safety Enhancement Act or in the Compliance Verification System or in the Food and Drugs Act of Canada or in the Meat Inspection Act (in the case of Canadian jurisdiction) is it clearly mentioned what should be minimum qualifications required to become the food safety drivers (HACCP Co-ordinator, HACCP Monitor, Food Safety Officer, Safety Quality Food Technician etc.) of a Food Processing Establishment.
    You cannot run a hospital without a doctor. Similarly, you can never run a food processing establishment professionally without a food safety driver with food science/food technology/food safety college/university diploma/degree competence.
    According to me, majorly, food science/meat science illiterates are running the show of food safety in our food/meat processing factories under bizarre food safety culture fine-tuned by the owners of the food/meat processing factories who employ food science/food technology/food safety illiterates without any formal education in the aforesaid field of study merely because they are widely available @ $12 per hour basis (you will observe many such in the Canadian job bank advertisement) and thus vilify the very foundation of the morality of the food safety culture of the food/meat processing factories which is highly antagonistic and dangerous from the public health and safety viewpoint of great importance.

  • Ajoy Daspurkayastha

    Public disclosure of the qualifications of the personnel (both from the industry’s side and from the regulatory body’s side like that of CFIA’s side here in Canada)working in the food/meat processing plants both for the federally registered food/meat plants and also for the provincially registered food/meat plants . This public disclosure of the qualifications of the persons working in the food/meat industries in Canada will protect the consumers right to know who are inspecting our food in which plant from food/meat industry’s side and from CFIA/OMAFRA/MUNICIPALITY’S side and only then our food safety system at grass-root level will be strengthened .