20/20 Vision on Food Safety

Each year, 48 million people contract foodborne illness in the US, resulting in 3,000 deaths.  Who is responsible for this?  Everyone in the food industry.

This summer, Dr. Gary Vroegindewey of The University of Maryland spoke at Michigan State University on food safety as part of the 2011 Robert Leader Endowed Lecture Series.  Vroegindewey’s global health experience ranges
from working in key roles with dairy production in South America, food safety
in Egypt, and Avian Influenza global planning to developing international
training programs for the Middle East.

Dr. Vroegindewey’s speech, titled Safe Food – Safe Nation: 20/20 Hindsight
and 20/20 Vision
, discussed global food trends that we are currently dealing with, the leadership and regulation that is needed to effectively address these trends, and what needs to be done going forward in order to maintain food safety for the US and the world.

Dr. Vroegindewey discussed three trends in food safety that the industry is currently experiencing.  These key drivers of the industry must be considered when looking at the needs and concerns of food leaders.

  • First, there is a substantial and increasing portion of the US food supply that is imported. People are demanding a wider range of options to eat, yet the number of inspectors of food imports is not increasing at the same rate as the volume of imported food.
  • Second, consumers are eating more raw and minimally processed food.  This is a positive as well as a potentially negative trend. Although promoting natural and organic health food options to a nation that struggled with nutritious eating habits is important, it calls for even more stringent regulation, inspection, and education.
  • And finally, the largest trend, and one that affects most people in the food industry, is the consolidation of industry organizations. As companies merge and grow, food risks are amplified. Large batch processing means a larger risk for a broader segment of the population.

There have also been contextual shifts in the industry, changes in the mindset of stakeholders, which need to be considered when developing food safety procedures.  The most notable change is consumers’ value of a brand over an individual product.  With recalls, companies must not only protect the consumer from contaminated products, but also protect the brand impression change that follows.  Visibility and ownership are vital strategies for a company to survive a recall and maintain the trust and confidence of their customers. Transparency is a necessity in the US economy as consumers consider their safety and take ownership for understanding what they are purchasing.  Read more about the trouble Apple is experiencing for lack of transparency in their suppliers.

From a regulation perspective, there is a clear shift from a reactive to proactive approach to food safety and prevention of foodborne illness. The most recent and influential change in legislation comes from the National Food Safety Modernization Act (NFSMA).  This law, passed in January 2011, puts more responsibility on the food industry and helps move the industry from a reactive to proactive stance on safety.  It also gives more power and support for decision makers to reject food processes they do not trust. For more information on the progress of implementation of the NFSMA, see our follow up post.

So, what needs to be done?  First and foremost, we must consider the safety of the consumer.  We have to educate, inform, and empower them on their food decisions.  We must understand where people get their information. We must get in front of them, give them the tools to make educated decisions about the food they choose to eat, instead of hoping they will come to us asking for information.  An important question to consider from Dr. Vroegindewey;  How is confidence in food safety or brand lost?  What is the tipping point?  Your product could be completely safe, but if people don’t believe it is safe then it doesn’t matter.

What else needs to be done?  Managing a strong and trusted supply chain. Leadership, training, up-to-date technology, transparency, risk assessment, and partnerships are all vital pieces that need to be considered and constantly evaluated to gain confidence in a company’s focus on food safety.  Dr. Vroegindewey quoted a line from the book Food Safety Culture on the importance of focus on process, not just product.  “Most food outbreaks are linked to failure to follow known processes, systems, and procedures”

Finally, we need to bring the experts together, bring key players together to create and share ideas to move forward. The food industry has a huge number of players, all with their own focus and responsibilities.  We need to use this pool of knowledge to create a fluid process of safety and transparency.

Dr. Vroegindewey left the group with one over-arching takeaway.  Leadership. With all these moving pieces and players in the food industry, strong leadership is vital to bringing the process together creating an airtight food safety process that will help all parties succeed and ultimately help the consumer feel completely confident in the safety of their food.

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