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Time after time, food safety comes down to information

Billed as a discussion about the past, present and future of food safety, a panel presentation at the annual Food Safety Consortium revealed a timeless common denominator. Information.

Gathering it. Tabulating it. Recognizing that it is imperfect and relative. Reacting to it. And, finally, using it to act preemptively. The consortium’s Wednesday afternoon session at the Renaissance Schaumburg Convention Center in Schaumburg, IL, returned to the significance of information time and time again

Panelists included a father who lost his son to the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak and representatives from government, industry, academia and food safety law. The perspectives from their various vantage points on the food safety space-time continuum consistently brought the discussion back to the power of information.

The Jack in the Box outbreak, which will be 25 years in the past with the coming of 2018, provided context for much of the discussion. Highlights from some of the panelists’ comments follow.

Ann Marie McNamara

Ann Marie McNamara is currently Target Corporation’s vice president for food safety. Two of her previous positions were director of the microbiology division in the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service’s office of public health and science from 1992-1999 and vice president for food safety for Jack in the Box from 2008-2017.

Her professional timeline traverses the spectrum on the Jack in the Box saga. When the outbreak was identified, she was at the top of the USDA’s food safety scientific staff. A few years later, she was responsible for the burger chain’s food safety program.

Gathering information wasn’t nearly as easy when the E. coli outbreak hit as it is now. McNamara said the four- to five-day wait for lab confirmation of E. coli infection was a big frustration during the outbreak when every hour mattered for children in intensive care units.

Darin Detwiler

Darin Detwiler, director of regulatory affairs of food and the food industry at  Northeastern University, lost his son during the Jack in the Box outbreak. In the ensuing years he has gathered information on all aspects of food safety, sharing it with students, members of Congress and pretty much anyone who would listen.

Among the fruits of his efforts was the introduction of warnings on labels to help consumers understand how to safely handle and cook meat.

Wednesday Detwiler said he sees hope for smaller outbreaks and larger preventive efforts by the food industry via the information gathering power of social media. He said sites such as Facebook and iwaspoisoned.com that give consumers the ability to report their food poisoning experiences as they occur have already identified outbreaks as they were happening.

“Consumers can perhaps drive some change through these kinds of sites,” Detwiler said.

Barbara Kowalcyk

Barbara Kowalcyk, assistant professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology at the Ohio State University’s Translational Data Analytics Institute, likes numbers. She’s been working as a statistician since 1994 in the business and academic arenas.

“I’ve been working with ‘big data’ my whole career,” she said Wednesday. “We just didn’t call it that.” Kowalcyk cautioned, however, that big isn’t necessarily better. “Big data is relative” and must be considered in context, she said.

Fast data is another double edged sword that carries the appeal of what appears to be timely information when, in fact, you end up with less information in the long run. Kowalcyk offered the increasing popularity of culture-independent diagnostic tests (CIDTs) as an example.

Such tests can identify the general type of bacteria causing illness within hours, without having to culture, or grow the bacteria in a laboratory. However, the quick tests cannot identify the specific serotype of a foodborne bacterium, which is needed to confirm patients are part of the same outbreak and to help identify the specific food that made them ill.

Bill Marler

Bill Marler, managing partner of Marler Clark LLP in Seattle and best known for representing victims of the Jack in the Box outbreak, agreed that information is priceless, but said it’s not worth a dime if it’s ignored.

With each new outbreak, be it raw bean sprouts or contaminated flour, he hears the same chorus. “Oh, we never knew that could be a problem, when, in fact, there have been outbreaks before,” Marler said.

The food safety future Marler is hoping for involves using today’s information to prevent tomorrow’s outbreak.

“It’s like when a bus goes off a cliff and people say, ‘Oh we need to put up a guardrail.’ We need to develop the ability to figure out where we need the guardrail before the bus goes off the cliff,” Marler said.

Editor’s note: Bill Marler is publisher of Food Safety News.

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