Why should companies that sell food step up to the new food safety law?

Because making people sick can kill a business, say Leavitt Partners and PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers) in a report issued Thursday.

Leavitt Partners is the consulting firm founded by former U.S. Health & Human Services Secretary Michael Levitt, where Dr. David Acheson, former Associate Commissioner of Foods at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, is the managing director for Food and Import Safety Practice.

The overview spells out some of the additional steps companies at “every link in the food chain” may need to take to comply with the law’s new requirements for identifying and preventing safety hazards.  But the report also stresses that companies should raise their standards to protect their brands.

The report, “Point of View: FDA Food Safety Modernization Act,” suggests that in a new era of closer scrutiny and increased enforcement, the most successful food companies will go beyond minimum standards to “win the loyalty of consumers and investors and gain a competitive advantage.”

As a cautionary example of how not to run a food business, the report cites the Peanut Corporation of America, “which shipped products contaminated with Salmonella, leading to one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history.  More than 700 people in 46 states got sick, and nine died.  The firm filed for bankruptcy, and a criminal investigation was launched.”

Growers, food manufacturers and processors, importers, restaurants and food retailers must all undergo “a change in mindset at the highest level to ensure a culture of food safety,”  the authors state.

They say two trends that have made the U.S.  food supply more vulnerable to foodborne illness outbreaks are the centralization of food production and the increase in imported food and ingredients. Tainted milk products from China, the report notes, wound up in candy sold in the United States.

Imports, the report goes on, account for 15 percent of the total food supply.  Eighty percent of the seafood and 50-60 percent of the fresh produce Americans consume comes from abroad. 

And while the mass distribution of foods means contaminations can affect large numbers of people–like the Salmonella-contaminated hydrolyzed vegetable protein in dressings, dips and 100 different foods last year–even small farms can be the source of multistate problems, such as the 2006  E. coli outbreak linked to a small lot of spinach from California.

Not surprisingly, the report characterizes the “modified requirements” for small businesses and farms as a gap in the new law and adds “it is unclear whether the final rules will give regulators the ability to quickly track tainted foods all the way from the store or restaurant back to the farm.”

The report emphasizes that the new law was prompted by significant problems that have undermined public confidence, including contaminated eggs, peanut butter, cookie dough, spinach, hot peppers and green onions.  And it points to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there are 48 million cases of foodborne illness resulting in 128,000 hospitalizations and more than 3,00 deaths in the U.S. each year.

It also notes that many food producers, restaurants and retailers, what it calls “leading companies,” are already successfully employing the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) approach to food safety plans, identifying each point where pathogens might contaminate their products.

“In the U.S. the FDA has used it to reduce the outbreaks of food-borne illness associated with juice since 2001, ” the report states.  “The record is less clear on seafood, where the FDA has required food safety plans since 1998, but the US Department of Agriculture, which regulates meat and poultry, has reduced food-borne illnesses by requiring HACCP plans.”

Among the features of the new law the report highlights are:

Companies that now register with the FDA (as required under the Bioterrorism Act of 2002)  will be required to analyze food safety hazards, how they plan to prevent those hazards and how they will monitor whether the controls are working.

Food defense plans (i.e., limiting access to production, background checks for employees, tamper-resistant packaging) aimed at preventing intentional contamination may be required for some food determined to be high-risk.

Registered companies will be required to maintain documents for at least two years and could be subject to expanded record-keeping for higher-risk foods.

The report also gives examples of what it calls “leading practices” that go beyond the new law, including:

Testing high-risk ingredients and using a combination of internal audits and “well-executed third-party” audits to check on suppliers’ safety procedures, even limiting the number of suppliers so that they can be visited regularly.

Using technologies, such as bar codes and radio frequency identification tags, to track the movement of produce electronically.

Following standards approved by the Global Food Safety Initiative or other groups to certify food companies and suppliers.

Adapting food safety courses to meet the new requirements and encouraging managers and workers to go through such training.