The pandemic will no doubt net more headlines in 2022 than any other topic, but that doesn’t mean discussions and news coverage about food safety will fade away. Along with recalls, outbreaks, and regulations, there will be new practices and technology to cover.
If the pandemic has taught us anything it is that the future is impossible to predict. The same is true with food safety, but there are several trends that are anticipated to continue in 2022.
Along with the trends, there are goals for 2022 and the STOP Foodborne Illness organization has developed a wish list that touches on a few of them. The non-profit group includes family members of foodborne illness victims and former government officials, among others in the food safety arena.
Three points STOP is pushing for in 2022:
- Requiring food handler permits for all meal delivery drivers;
- Training FDA inspectors on modern food safety culture practices; and
- Consumer advocacy to get more industry leaders to back improved food safety regulations.
The organization also has three points it refers to as “fails” from 2021 that it hopes will be addressed this year:
- More people are handling our food than before — through ghost kitchens, delivery services, etc.;
- 100 percent of all food recalls are not public, only 215 known food recalls in 2021 as of mid-December; and
- The industry and U.S. government need to move faster to implement modern Salmonella prevention policies.
The Salmonella situation
The topic of Salmonella prevention policies came to the forefront in 2021 when STOP, individuals, and groups including Consumer Reports, filed a petition with the U.S. Department of Agriculture asking the agency to declare certain strains of Salmonella as adulterants. When something is declared an adulterant it means it is not fit for human consumption and cannot be sold.
Chicken and other poultry are at the center of the Salmonella battle, but changes could also impact beef, pork, and other products regulated by the USDA. In late 2021 the USDA indicated it was reviewing the citizen petition but did not say when action might be taken.
In the late 1990s, a similar effort regarding certain strains of E. coli resulted in that pathogen being declared an adulterant, thus making it illegal to sell beef and other products contaminated with it. That action came as a direct result of the deadly 1993 E. coli outbreak traced to hamburgers sold by Jack in the Box restaurants.
“In January 2021 Stop Foodborne Illness (STOP), and our initial coalition partners, petitioned the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) to modernize poultry inspection performance standards. We are calling for them to be enforceable, risk-based, science-based, and directly linked to public health outcomes,” according to a statement from STOP.
“It is noteworthy that the coalition expanded to include academia, additional consumer advocacy groups, STOP constituent advocates, former senior regulatory officials, and four of the largest poultry producers in the United States — Butterball LLC, Wayne Farms LLC, Perdue Farms, and Tyson Foods. This partnership called upon USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to support the call to action.
“In October (2021), Secretary Vilsack made an official announcement that a review and update of the Salmonella standards is to be made a priority. Now, with engagement by Deputy Undersecretary for Food Safety Sandra Eskin and her team, we are communicating and working to move toward meaningful change.”
Eskin told the publication Meat & Poultry that one reason for the review is that while there has been a decrease in production contamination there has not been a corresponding decrease in illnesses. She said more than 1 million consumer illnesses from Salmonella occur yearly, with 23 percent from the consumption of chicken and turkey. The USDA will get help from the National Advisory Committee for Microbiological Criteria in Foods for its review.
Leafy greens and water
Another enforcement topic that continues to be at the forefront involves leafy greens and the water used to produce them.
On Dec. 2, 2021, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced the release of a proposed revision to Subpart E (Agricultural Water) of the Produce Safety Rule (PSR). The announcement comes after a string of recalls and E. coli outbreaks in the past few years involving romaine lettuce and packaged/bagged salads. In December alone three such outbreaks were announced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The FDA has been investigating the problem for years and reports that the proximity of cattle feedlots to produce growing fields is a key element in the contamination of leafy greens from some areas in California and Arizona. Among other problems, the feedlots can contaminate open irrigation canals with dust and runoff.
Farms in California and Arizona produce 90 percent of the leafy greens grown in the United States, which industry officials say translates into 50 billion servings per year.
The FDA has initiated a 120-day comment period on the proposed revision to the so-called ag water rule, which will be followed by the FDA rulemaking process.
FDA’s new plan for modernization for outbreak response
With the release of the Foodborne Outbreak Response Improvement Plan in 2021, the FDA set the stage for the agency and its partners to “enhance the speed, effectiveness, coordination, and communication of foodborne outbreak investigations.” The goal is to reduce the number of foodborne illness outbreaks of food under the FDA’s jurisdiction.
The plan is part of the FDA’s New Era of Smarter Food Safety initiative for which the agency collaborated with experts in the public and private sectors for input on additional ways to strengthen the agency’s outbreak response.
Input from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) and the CDC, state health officials, industry and consumer foodborne outbreak experts, along with the input of FDA leadership and staff, was key to the development of the new plan.
The FDA’s officials say the Foodborne Outbreak Response Improvement Plan focuses on four specific priority areas in which improvements will have the most impact on outbreaks associated with human food:
- Tech-enabled product traceback;
- Root-cause investigations (RCIs);
- Strengthening analysis and dissemination of outbreak data; and
- Operational improvements.
“Adding the Outbreak Response Improvement Plan to our arsenal, which includes FSMA and the New Era of Smarter Food Safety, will ultimately prevent illnesses and save lives; and that is what this work is all about for us,” according to the FDA’s announcement on the plan.
Overhauling the governmental structure of food safety oversight
This has been one of the most talked-about and most elusive topics in the food safety arena since the 1970s. One example often cited as to why a streamlined approach to food safety is needed is the pizza question: Why does the FDA have jurisdiction over cheese pizza while the USDA regulates pizza with pepperoni?
The answer, for now, is that the FDA does not have authority over meat, poultry, and some types of processed egg products. Discussions about merging the food safety work of the USDA with that of the FDA will no doubt continue in 2022, but people promoting the concept have little hope that any major steps will be taken.
The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office has produced 16 reports about the problems with the U.S. food safety system, but Congress has not acted to create a single agency, even though 10 bills have been introduced.
Food safety auditing
Improvements in technology — and now the impact of COVID-19 — has resulted in fewer and fewer in-person food safety audits. It is not unusual for auditors to be taken on virtual tours of establishments rather than taking the boots-on-the-ground approach.
Some people say there is no need for in-person audits regarding record keeping and review of food safety action plans because paperwork can be inspected on computer screens.
Along with more tech-enabled food safety checks, there is a movement to change from a so-called one size fits all approach. Some food producers say their operations should not be treated the same as others who market completely different products.
Instead, they want to be assessed for their individual risks and locations so they can build adaptive programs that focus time and effort within supply chain segments, and determine where to drive improvement and reduce risk.
Other food safety topics for 2022
Among other routes, this virus that attacks the liver can be transmitted through food when it is handled by an infected person. Outbreaks related to restaurants and other foodservice operations are not uncommon. One example from 2021 came from three locations of Famous Anthony’s restaurants. A single employee who worked at all three locations while infected passed the virus to more than 45 people. At least one person required a liver transplant and two others died. A simple way for restaurants and other food service operations, such as schools and hospitals, to avoid such situations is to provide vaccinations for their food handlers.
With increasing evidence of the dangers of outdoor food production — such as contaminated irrigation water and animal intrusions into growing fields — some people cite the relative safety of greenhouse growing. A key obstruction to this method of farming is the cost, with one acre of high-tech greenhouse growing space costing more than $1 million to build. The tradeoff is complete control of the growing environment and tremendously increased yields per acre. Greenhouse growers say they can produce six times the number of tomatoes per acre compared to outdoor fields. There are more and more greenhouse operations sprouting up, with crops now including tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, strawberries, and leafy greens.
Long approved for certain foods including ground beef and leafy greens, food irradiation is a food safety technique that sends some people into hysterics. They think it means their food will be radioactive despite scientific evidence and reassurances from food safety experts in government and the private sector. In addition to killing pathogens including bacteria, viruses, and parasites, irradiation can actually extend shelf life. Shelf life is extended because pathogens that cause spoilage are killed during the process. Virtually all surgical tools are irradiated to kill germs, but that fact has done little to ease consumers’ minds about this practice. The World Health Organization, the American Dietetic Association, and the European Union’s Scientific Committee all support food irradiation for food safety.
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