The science of food safety has evolved from simple bathroom signs reminding employees to wash their hands. Global sourcing has increased the risk of foodborne illness with foods traveling longer distances to get from farm to table.
Mike Haller, technical manager of UL’s Everclean solution, a food safety auditing and advisory service for the U.S. and Canadian grocery and retail space, discusses the complexities of food safety, offering his perspective on why we just can’t get it right – in this Inside UL exclusive.
Q. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 48 million people get sick each year from a foodborne illness. Why are foodborne illnesses still a problem?
A. There are so many moving parts when it comes to the foodborne illness “process.” There are the physical aspects, such as etiological agents like the various bacteria and viruses involved, which vary in structure and severity. There are also the food items and conditions in which they are grown, processed, stored and then ultimately served.
To add to the complexities, we must factor in the human element – the food handlers that move, prepare, store and serve our food as well. And, surrounding all of this is the food safety culture which varies from organization to organization. While our goal is to prevent every occurrence of foodborne illness, the fact of the matter is, E. coli happens.
When I started my food safety career in 1993, the CDC estimated that 76 million people became ill from foodborne illnesses each year. Today’s 48 million is a reduction of 28 million occurrences or a 37-percent reduction. While one foodborne illness is one too many, the foodservice industry has made strides in the positive direction
Q. Although the industry continuously invests in developing and improving food preparation processes, the number of foodborne outbreaks appears to be stable in both Europe and the U.S.: Is there a different approach required to improve the effectiveness of food safety and quality management systems?
A. Counting the number of foodborne illnesses can be a misleading statistic in terms of whether we are making advancements in food safety. The technology used in detecting foodborne illnesses has also advanced. In addition, reporting mechanisms have also advanced as transparency and social media has made it easier to report occurrences that may have been under-reported in the past. I believe, in addition to this, the concept of a true “food safety culture” within progressive sectors of the food industry is also growing and evolving.
Q. An outbreak can occur anywhere, from cafeterias to hospitals and fast casual eateries: are all food businesses equally at risk?
A. We assess risk based upon several criteria: the type of food served; the special processes used to make the food, such as the increased popularity of Reduced Oxygen Packaging (ROP); and the population served, such as serving “Highly Susceptible Populations” (HSP) such as children, the elderly or those who have an immune deficiency. Special care is already taken in these situations. Technological advancements and changes in laws to protect these vulnerable or more susceptible populations will continue to evolve to reduce relative risk.
Q. The CDC found lettuce found to be the cause in several 2018 outbreaks. In your opinion, is it a supply chain problem or a food prep issue?
A. Again, the Farm-to-Fork process is multifaceted and involves different steps along the entire process, each with their unique vulnerabilities. In the recent case studies, we can see the smoking gun from both the supply chain and the preparation processes.
Q. What steps can a restaurant or food preparer take to help reduce the risk of foodborne illness in his or her business?
A. Develop a positive food safety culture, which means taking an active role in involving all members of the food workers in recognizing and mitigating risks along the complicated, Farm-to-Fork process, regardless of their rank. In the “Active Managerial Control” system, developed by the FDA, utilizing a 3rd party auditor to assist in creating and promulgating a positive food safety culture is a priority, if not essential.
Q. What should a food vendor do if an outbreak is traced back to his or her business?
A. Be engaged and be truthful. Fortunately, a crisis like this does not occur every day, but when it does, it can be devastating to a vendor’s brand image. Doing the right thing, which may mean admitting you don’t know everything there is to know about foodborne illness crisis management, is a good step.
Rely on food safety experts for support and guidance, but also be engaged, truthful and prepared to make changes. People may be understanding that accidents can occur, but how a company reacts to the crisis determines whether they will be forgiven.
Haller oversees the technical food safety team as well as client technical programs for UL’s Everclean solution.
He served as a Program Manager for the Orange County Environmental Health’s Food & Pool Safety Program. His duties included overseeing the illness prevention section, housing & institutions and the lead program. He also is an adjunct instructor at Cal State University, San Bernardino, teaching a “Foodborne Illnesses and Their Prevention” course.
Haller holds a B.S. degree in environmental health and a B.A. degree in biology from California State University- San Bernardino and a Master of Public Health degree from California State University- Fullerton.
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