Editor’s note: Authors of this guest column are Andy Monshaw and Steve Eiseler.
A 22-year-old college student spent her Thanksgiving break at her grandparents’ home — in bed, sick, with what her family assumed was a stomach virus. But when her grandparents both came down with the same symptoms 12 hours later, some family members started to question whether the real culprit was their Thanksgiving dinner.
At Christmas time, all the guests at a catered event developed cryptosporidiosis, a parasitic disease whose symptoms can persist for weeks. The unlikely source was the garnish used on a number of dishes — green onions. They became contaminated through bare-hand contact by an infected food worker.
It’s that time of year when the parties never seem to end. They’re great occasions for exchanging good will and gifts – but not the dangerous bacteria that cause foodborne illness.
Consumer awareness of food safety is especially important as we head into the holidays when we eat, drink and be merry. In fact, the CDC now estimates one out of every six of us, nearly 48 million people, get sick each year from foodborne disease. Infants and adolescent children at higher risk, as are the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.
Harmful bacteria that may be in the soil or water where produce grows may come in contact with the fruits and vegetables and contaminate them. Or, fresh produce may become contaminated after it is harvested, such as during preparation or storage. Eating contaminated produce (or fruit and vegetable juices made from contaminated produce) can lead to foodborne illness, which can cause serious — and sometimes fatal — infections.
At the same time, consumers are dealing with favorite foods they seldom prepare outside of the holiday season that carry their own set of risks. For example, traditional eggnog made with raw eggs is a common one. Fresh eggs may contain bacteria that can cause an intestinal infection called salmonellosis. Cooking can destroy the bacteria.
The food industry must, and can, do better by intensifying efforts to implement measures to improve the safety of food products as they travel from farm to fork.
In fact, small businesses operating in the food industry have additional layers of regulations and mandates defined by federal and state agencies such as the United States Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. The new Food Safety Modernization Act, as well as industry trade association standards, have added new and complex compliance demands to the landscape — making it a challenge for many to keep pace.
We are quickly shifting from paper-based records to digitizing information that is collected at each step of the food distribution cycle, as produce goes from farm to supermarket shelves or ingredient buyers locations. This records digitization is a huge advancement for the food safety community. Today, anyone within the organization can look at the information that is collected at any point on its path and be sure safe products are being delivered
CDC’s FoodNet surveillance system data, which tracks trends among common foodborne pathogens, has documented a 20 percent decrease in illnesses from key pathogens during the past 10 years. Small to medium organizations are at the forefront to drive innovation in the industry, placing a greater emphasis on more affordable “Big Data” analytical and traceability technologies which enable them to take proactive measures to ensure food safety and ultimately protect the consumer.
Evolving the processes, policies and infrastructure of monitoring a more transparent food supply chain, and the way trading partners communicate to notify customers on shipments and arm a small number of individuals to do a lot of complex tasks in the event of a recall, will be key to ensure the highest quality of produce — and ultimately the safety of consumers and a happy holiday season.
Steve Eiseler is Vice President of Operations at Cherry Central and Andy Monshaw is the general manager for IBM Global MidMarket Business.