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