An almost constant spate of food recalls should require us to think about proactive food safety.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, there were 1,958 food and cosmetic recalls in 2018 and already 1,163 in 2019. Since 2012, there were 18,134 recalls. (This includes recalls for contamination, foreign particles, unreported allergens and other sources.)

When it comes to fresh produce, we most commonly see issues related to E. coli, salmonella and listeria. And, while we may often identify the problem, too often we can’t identify the source (at least quickly), making an actual recall problematic.

Three recent issues with romaine lettuce have proven that a) food safety issues impact everyone in the supply chain and b) most food safety programs are reactive – once a problem occurs, we do our best to pull all of the produce out of the supply chain, off the shelves and out of our refrigerators and destroy it.

Unfortunately, many people are sickened. CDC estimates that each year 48 million people get sick from a food-borne illness, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die. There’s also a massive financial (and environmental) impact.

This should be a wake-up call. Proactive food safety, and a focus on preventing problems before they happen, should be our priority to help us address these challenges.

Rethinking Food Safety

In a recent Zest Labs blog, Rethinking Food Safety and the Supply Chain, I discussed how the Produce Marketing Association’s Dr. Bob Whitaker says we need to rethink how we address food safety issues to include all of the constituent members of the supply chain. He suggests a different approach used by marketers to define a “sandbox” of everyone that should be involved in addressing this challenge. In other words, we should define who we want to talk to and how to develop messages for each participant in the audience to understand. By doing so, we can make proactive food safety more relatable and actionable to all supply chain participants.

In a July 23rd article in The Produce News, Dr. Whitaker states that, while food safety is everyone’s responsibility, retailers are in a unique position to influence food safety across the supply chain. He writes:

“Retailers need to recognize the responsibility they have to educate themselves about food-safety risks in their own operations and the opportunities they have to influence the entire supply chain. They need to ask suppliers the right questions about produce safety programs, set expectations and develop true partnerships with suppliers to ensure a science-first and beyond-compliance approach to food safety throughout our entire supply chain.”

Proactive Food Safety: Four Recommendations

Dr. Whitaker then recommends four points that he believes “all suppliers should consider and all retailers should be thinking about” when it comes to food safety. In brief:

  1. Create produce training and safety programs that are developed using real-world produce industry examples. He suggests better utilizing online training that can be tailored to people’s learning styles, monitored and more easily updated.
  2. Make food safety everyone’s responsibility. It’s not just the growers, food safety professionals or processing plant workers but everyone in an organization should be knowledgeable about their company’s food safety programs. Each person should understand their role when it comes to proactive food safety. Dr. Whitaker says “If you are a salesperson at a desk, you need to be able to explain your organization’s produce safety program to your buyers to give them confidence in your program. On the retail side, it should be your expectation that your produce buyers understand your corporate expectations about produce safety, can communicate those to suppliers and then reward those that demonstrate produce safety achievement with purchase orders.”
  3. Education and training should be part of your science-based produce safety programs. Whitaker recommends that we should Identify where we have vulnerabilities in our operations and focus our training and education on them and document and measure performance improvements. By doing so, he says, “This often will take you beyond compliance with federal regulations or customer specifications and bring you to a produce safety program that does what you need it to do; protect your business.”
  4. Plan for variability. Most everything in the fresh produce supply chain involves constant variability. Differences in things such as the commodities we grow, labor and changes in post-harvest operations mean that “produce safety education and training program needs to reflect the variability in production and help employees see how to connect what they are learning to actual production situations.”

Proactive Food Safety Inspections

According to Food Safety News, as of July, the FDA has begun inspecting produce farms and packing houses under the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act’s Produce Safety Rule. Inspections began for farms and orchards making more than $500,000 in annual sales. Smaller farms will have another year to become compliant with the rule.

According to the Food Safety News article, these inspections aren’t going to be heavy-fisted actions aimed at doling out penalties. Instead, according to what FDA and state inspectors have said, they’ll be educational and even collaborative. “We won’t come down like a ton of bricks right out of the gate,” said Hector Castro, spokesman for the Washington State Department of Agriculture. “The goal is to help farms comply with the Produce Safety Rule to ensure that food is safe — not to hand out fines and penalties.” That said, it doesn’t mean that farms and packing sheds that pose an immediate danger to public health won’t be subject to penalties.

These inspections are aimed at preventing conditions that could lead to food-borne diseases. That’s what the Food Safety Modernization Act is all about: preventing health problems, not just reacting to them, as was the case before the act was signed into law. (Emphasis added)

What Can Consumers Do to be Proactive?

The Partnership for Food Safety Education has published a number of resources to help consumers be proactive when it comes to food safety in the home. Recall Basics for Consumers explains how to identify recalls and what to do if you have food affected by a recall. They also have information about the four basics for food safety. These provide sound advice and best practices to help prevent food safety issues at home.

We also need to be able to expect that the people that provide our food are trustworthy and are taking steps to ensure proactive food safety across the fresh food supply chain. It’s great that food retailers and suppliers can take the lead on this but we all have a role to play.