Routine epidemiological work still has an important role to play in this modern age of whole-genome sequencing, sustainability practices in the food industry aren’t hampering safety procedures, and the jury is still out on whether reducing sodium in processed foods is a food safety risk.

Those were some general sentiments expressed Sunday during a roundtable debate at the International Association for Food Protection (IAFP) annual meeting in Portland, OR. Sponsored by the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) North America, the “Current Perspectives in Food Safety” debate was convened by Joe Shebuski of Cargill and Jean Anderson of General Mills.

IAFP 2015  logoThree topics in the form of a question were debated by two food safety experts tasked with taking the “yes” or the “no” side without regard to their personal views or those of their organization. Audience members had a chance to ask questions of either side and to vote on the question both before and after the presentations.

Dr. Eric Brown of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) drew the “yes” side of the first debate question, “Is shoe leather epidemiology dead in the era of whole-genome sequencing?” He said while “no one could deny” that the old-style investigation approach has been helpful, “We still don’t have a mechanism in place that solves all foodborne illnesses,” since one in three cases remain unsolved.

Brown cited several problems with classic epi approaches: A “critical mass of people” is needed to begin to source an outbreak, questionnaires are difficult to standardize across international boundaries, and the information needs to relate to geographic proximity.

Representing the “no” side was Dr. Martin Wiedmann, a food safety professor at Cornell University. Wiedmann called bacteria “a gigantic identical twin issue” because the latter cannot be differentiated by DNA evidence. In murder cases involving identical twins, “We cannot know which one committed the crime, and we cannot convict,” he said.

Wiedmann acknowledged that epidemiology is hard work in foodborne illness outbreaks, although he added, “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. We need money and resources. We need to do the difficult thing.”

The second debate question, “Is sustainability treading on food safety?,” featured Kathy Gombas of FDA’s CFSAN addressing the “yes” side. She told the audience that she had referred the question to industry, academic, and other sources in preparing her argument and found that “there is no consensus on sustainability.”

More information is needed about what sustainability is and how it can be managed in industry, Gombas said, because efforts to reduce waste and compost, for example, can end up inadvertently creating food safety problems. However, she noted, potential co-management opportunities exist throughout the supply chain which could combine food safety and sustainability programs.

Taking the “no” side of the argument, Brent Kobielush, manager of toxicology for General Mills, said the issue wasn’t just about food safety and that “we cannot silo off sustainability” from the discussion. “If how you produce food isn’t safe, you will not have sustainability,” he said.

General Mills uses a biomass generator to burn oat hulls left over from oat flour produced to make Cheerios and also reuses the cooling water from its Progresso soup line, Kobielush said. “We are not putting our heads in the sand and saying that people do not demand sustainability,” he said.

The final question in the debate, “Is sodium reduction in processed foods a risk to food safety?,” had Dr. Peter Taormina of John Morrell & Co. arguing the “yes” view. Tracing the long history of salt as a food preservative, he said that Roman soldiers were paid in salt and that the word “salary” comes from the Latin root word for “salt.”

“Let’s not throw sodium chloride out the window. Pound for pound, it’s the best preservative in the history of food safety,” Taormina said.

Taking the “no” side, Dr. Kathleen Glass, associate director of the Food Research Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said that most high-sodium foods have Na-compounds added for functionality and flavor, not safety. “Food safety systems are complex,” she said, adding, “Salt is not the sole means to control safety in most contemporary foods.”

Reduction in salt can be compensated for through other formulation modifications to ensure microbial safety, Glass said, and it’s a fact that consumers want less sodium in their food. “It’s one of those things where you either have to jump on the train with this, or you’re going to get run over,” she said.

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