Food Safety Considerations for Nutrition Science
Posted February 06, 2015
On November 6, 2014, the Sackler Institute for Nutrition Science convened researchers, food industry representatives, and policy analysts to discuss the nuances of modern food safety. The Food Safety Considerations for Innovative Nutrition Solutions conference featured two keynote presentations reviewing the food safety landscape, which now encompasses global supply chains, multinational companies, sophisticated consumers, and sensitive tests for pathogens and toxins. Foodborne disease outbreaks that would have gone unnoticed a few years ago now make national and international headlines, often provoking strong and unpredictable public reactions.
After a discussion of the economic, social, and policy aspects of food safety, attendees heard about new technologies that can mitigate the risks of foodborne illnesses. Speakers also described new strategies for communicating with the public about food safety and presented ways to encourage safer food handling in homes and restaurants. A panel discussion at the end of the conference prompted wide-ranging questions and suggestions from the audience. Speakers and attendees expressed guarded optimism about the future of food safety; even as humanity enjoys the safest and most reliable food supply in history, the food industry and its regulators and advisors must remain vigilant against new threats.
Use the tabs above to find a meeting report and multimedia from this event.
Presentations available from:
Robert E. Brackett, PhD (Illinois Institute of Technology)
Carol Byrd-Bredbenner, PhD (Rutgers University)
Benjamin Chapman, PhD (North Carolina State University)
Marjorie Nolan Cohn, MS (Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics)
Tanya Roberts, PhD (Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention)
Victoria Salin, PhD (Texas A&M University)
Manpreet Singh, PhD (Purdue University)
William H. Sperber, PhD (The Friendly Microbiologist LLC)
Frank Yiannas, MPH (Wal-Mart Stores Inc.)
How to cite this eBriefing
The New York Academy of Sciences. Food Safety Considerations for Nutrition Science. Academy eBriefings. 2015. Available at: www.nyas.org/FoodSafety-eB
- 00:011. Introduction
- 03:292. Commodity price impact on food prices; Supply chain economics
- 10:083. Product differentiation and consumer demand; Consumer market segmentation
- 16:484. Distance to market; Consumer safety coping mechanisms
- 22:475. Product recall study
- 27:406. Competitive conditions and food safety; Final thoughts; Conclusio
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Books, Websites, and Reports
Committee on Risk Assessment of Hazardous Air Pollutants, Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology, Commission on Life Sciences, National Research Council. Science and Judgment in Risk Assessment. Washington, DC: National Academy Press; 1994.
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Yiannas F. Food Safety Culture: Creating a Behavior-Based Food Safety Management System. Softcover reprint of hardcover 1st ed. 2009 ed. New York, NY: Springer; 2010.
Yiannas F. Food Safety Culture Home Page.
Gary Acuff, PhD
Gary R. Acuff is a professor of food microbiology at Texas A&M University and director of the Texas A&M Center for Food Safety. He has been a member of the faculty for 34 years. In 2001 he was designated a Texas AgriLife Research Faculty Fellow for research leadership and has subsequently headed the Department of Animal Science. He is past president, and now a fellow, of the International Association for Food Protection (IAFP). He is also a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology. Acuff holds MS and PhD degrees in food science and technology, specializing in food microbiology, from Texas A&M University. His research has focused on improving the microbiological quality and safety of red meat, recently looking at use of surrogate bacteria for validation of process control in Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) systems.
Tim Freier, PhD
Timothy A. Freier is senior director of global food safety innovation at Cargill. He holds MS and PhD degrees in microbiology from Iowa State University and completed postdoctoral work at Oregon State University. He was a codeveloper and instructor for the American Meat Institute (AMI) Advanced Listeria Intervention and Control Workshop and has served on its Scientific Affairs and Grant Review committees. Freier has chaired the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) Microbiological Safety Committee, the GMA Task Force on the Control of Salmonella in Low-moisture Foods, and IAFP Meat and Poultry Professional Development Group. He is a member of the Sackler Institute's Technology and Innovation in Agriculture, Food, and Nutrition Working Group, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) Working Group on Guidelines for Conducting Challenge Tests, and the National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Foods.
Girish Ganjyal, PhD
Girish Ganjyal is an assistant professor in the School of Food Science at Washington State University. Ganjyal received his PhD in food processing from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln (UNL). Before joining WSU he worked as a principal scientist at MGP Ingredients in the areas of protein and starch modification and extrusion processing, and later on the PepsiCo advanced research team. Ganjyal has over 9 years' industry experience in food ingredients, process technologies, and food product development. He offers extension and research services to food companies through the WSU Food Processing Extension and Research programs.
Michael Morrissey, PhD
Michael Morrissey is a professor of food science and technology at Oregon State University and the director of the OSU Food Innovation Center. He was previously director of the OSU Seafood Laboratory. The Food Innovation Center is part of the College of Agriculture Experiment Stations and is unique in its urban location and mission to promote agri-businesses and start-up food companies. Morrissey's research focuses on food safety, seafood quality, product development, fish species identification, and by-product utilization. He has been an invited scientific lecturer at Fundacion-Chile, the National Fisheries Institute of Peru, and the Japanese Society of Fisheries Science, among other organizations. He served on the External Advisory Board for SEAFOODplus, a multidisciplinary project involving 17 European countries. Morrissey has received the OSU Oldfield-Jackman Team Award for Pacific whiting research, the Earl P. McPhee Award for his contributions to seafood science, and the Briskey Award for Faculty Excellence from the College of Agricultural Sciences at OSU. He was elected an Institute of Food Technology (IFT) Fellow in 2003.
Prabhu Pingali, PhD
Prabhu Pingali is a professor in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management and the founding director of the Tata-Cornell Agriculture and Nutrition Initiative at Cornell University. Before joining Cornell he was the deputy director of the Agriculture Development Division of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Pingali has received several international awards for his work, including the Research Discovery Award from the Agricultural & Applied Economics Association. Pingali has over three decades of experience working with international agricultural development organizations as a research economist, development practitioner, and senior manager. He was the director of the Agricultural and Development Economics Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations from 2002 to 2007. He has also directed the Economics Program at CIMMYT, the International Rice Research Institute, and the World Bank's Agriculture and Rural Development Department. Pingali's work has focused on food policy, technological change, productivity growth, environmental externalities, and resource management in the developing world.
Mandana Arabi, MD, PhD
Amy Beaudreault, PhD
Robert E. Brackett, PhD
Robert E. Brackett is a professor of food science and nutrition and Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and vice president and director of the Institute for Food Safety and Health (IFSH). Brackett received his doctorate in food microbiology from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He previously held leadership positions at GMA and scientific and policy positions at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (FDA CFSAN). As CFSAN director, he led development and implementation of programs and policies related to the composition, quality, safety, and labeling of foods, food and color additives, dietary supplements, and cosmetics. Earlier in his career, Brackett held academic positions at North Carolina State University and the University of Georgia. He is a fellow of IAFP and the American Academy of Microbiology. He has received the FDA Award of Merit, the IAFP President's Appreciation Award, the University of Wisconsin William C. Frazier Food Microbiology Award, and the FDA Distinguished Alumni Award.
Frank Yiannas, MPH
Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
Frank Yiannas is vice president of food safety at Wal-Mart, overseeing food safety and public health functions for the world's largest food retailer. He was previously director of safety and health for the Walt Disney World Company. Yiannas received the FDA Collaboration Award in 2008 and the National Science Foundation International Lifetime Achievement Award for Leadership in Food Safety in 2007. He is past president of IAFP and a current board member of the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI). He is also an adjunct professor at Michigan State University. He is the author of Food Safety Culture, Creating a Behavior-based Food Safety Management System, published by Springer Scientific. Yiannas is a registered microbiologist with the American Academy of Microbiology. He holds an MPH from the University of South Florida.
Bold Bear Food Safety
Dane Bernard has over 40 years' experience in food safety and quality. Before his retirement, he was vice president of food safety and quality assurance at Keystone Foods, a manufacturer of meat and poultry products. He received a Master's degree in food science from the University of Maryland. He has authored or coauthored over 70 technical articles and been an invited expert to seven international consultations sponsored by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and/or the World Health Organization (WHO) dealing with food safety topics. He also served as a member of the U.S. National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Foods and as an industry advisor to the U.S. delegation of the Codex Committee on Food Hygiene. Bernard was a founding board member of Safe Supply of Affordable Food Everywhere (SSAFE), a non-profit organization dedicated to building infrastructure for self-sufficiency in food production and processing for developing countries.
Carol Byrd-Bredbenner, PhD
Carol Byrd-Bredbenner is a professor of nutrition and an extension specialist in the Nutritional Sciences Department and a charter fellow of the Institute of Food, Nutrition, and Health at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Her research looks at the impact of cognitive and environmental factors on food nutrition behaviors and health outcomes. She also develops recommendations for nutrition communications and health promotion interventions. Byrd-Bredbenner served on the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases panel for the development of Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Food Allergy. She has received teaching awards from the American Dietetic Association, the Society for Nutrition Education, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She was a fellow of the United Nations and World Health Organization at the WHO Collaborating Center for Nutrition Education, University of Athens, Greece. She received her doctorate from Pennsylvania State University.
Benjamin Chapman, PhD
Benjamin Chapman is an associate professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. A Saturday afternoon viewing of the cable movie Outbreak as a teenager sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of lessening foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm to fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers—the gatekeepers of safe food. Chapman cohosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Pinterest. Follow him on Twitter @benjaminchapman.
Marjorie Nolan Cohn, MS
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
Marjorie Nolan Cohn is a registered dietitian and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She specializes in eating disorders, weight loss counseling, and personal training and group fitness. Cohn is coauthor of Overcoming Binge Eating for DUMMIES and The Belly Fat Fix: Taming Ghrelin—The Hunger Hormone—For Quick, Healthy Weight Loss. She holds a Master's degree in food and nutrition science and is licensed to practice nutrition counseling and personal training.
Jeff Farber, PhD
Jeff Farber is director of the Bureau of Microbial Hazards, Food Directorate, in the Health Products and Food Branch of Health Canada. He holds an adjunct professor position at the University of Ottawa. His expertise is in foodborne pathogens, molecular characterization of foodborne pathogens, and safety and control measures for ready-to-eat foods. He is an advisory board member of the U.S. Center for Produce Safety, past editor of the International Journal of Food Microbiology, and scientific editor for IAFP Report. He is the alternate Codex Canadian head of delegation for the Committee on Food Hygiene, past president of IAFP, cochair of the Canadian Listeriosis Reference Service, and a member and treasurer of the International Commission on Microbiological Specifications for Foods (ICMSF). He is a recipient of the Prime Minister of Canada's Outstanding Achievement Award of the Public Service of Canada and the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medal. He is a fellow of IAFP.
Linda J. Harris, PhD
Linda J. Harris oversees a research program on the microbial food safety of fresh fruits and vegetables and tree nuts, developing and validating microbiological methods to study pathogens and evaluating antimicrobial treatments including sanitizers and thermal and non-thermal processes for their efficacy in reducing microbial populations in food systems. These data have been used to develop quantitative microbial risk assessments and new food safety policies and practices. Harris is the recipient of an IAFP Educator Award and a Frozen Food Foundation Research Award. In 2013 she was elected to the IAFP Executive Board as secretary. She will serve as its president beginning in August 2016. She has served two terms on the National Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Criteria for Foods. In 2013–2014 she took sabbatical leave at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
Tanya Roberts, PhD
Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention
Tanya Roberts spent 30 years at the Economic Research Service, USDA, before retiring as a senior economist in 2008. Her research focused on estimating the societal costs of foodborne illness, the public–private interface of food safety regulations, and the critical role of food safety information in both public and private decision making. Other research areas included food safety data availability from farm to fork, economic incentives for food safety and rapid pathogen testing, and innovations to improve pathogen control in food products. Roberts earned her PhD in economics from the University of Washington in Seattle. She has been a member of the American Agricultural Economics Association, the American Society of Microbiologists, and the International Association of Food Protection. She is chair of the Board of Directors of the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention, a consumer advocacy nonprofit organization.
Victoria Salin, PhD
Texas A&M University
Victoria Salin is a professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Texas A&M University, specializing in agribusiness management and finance. Salin is codirector of the Agribusiness, Food, and Consumer Economics Research Center and leads research and outreach projects relating to food safety, traceability, financial markets, and strategic management. She is also chair of the Intercollegiate Faculty of Agribusiness and director of the Master of Agribusiness program. Salin serves on the Executive Board of the International Food & Agribusiness Management Association, as well as the Scientific Advisory Council of the World Food Logistics Organization. She is past chair of the Food Safety & Nutrition Section of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association. She holds an MA in government and foreign affairs from the University of Virginia and a PhD from Purdue University with specialties in agribusiness finance and international trade. Before receiving her PhD she was an editor in private industry and with the Economic Research Service and an international trade analyst at the U.S. International Trade Commission.
Manpreet Singh, PhD
Manpreet Singh is an associate professor of food safety in the Department of Food Science at Purdue University. Singh earned his doctorate in food science and technology from Iowa State University. He was previously an associate professor of food safety and microbiology in the Department of Poultry Science at Auburn University. Singh's research interests include pre- and post-harvest food safety, the impact of poultry and meat processing on food safety, and the development and validation of intervention strategies to control foodborne pathogens in production and processing. He also studies the prevalence and persistence of foodborne pathogens in animal production and processing, with a focus on antibiotic resistance and stress responses of pathogens in meat and poultry.
William H. Sperber, PhD
The Friendly Microbiologist LLC
Raised in rural Wisconsin on his grandparents' farms and in his parents' grocery store, William Sperber seemed a good fit for a career in food microbiology. He earned his degrees at the University of Wisconsin and for 43 years held research and leadership positions in microbiology and food safety with Best Foods, Pillsbury, and Cargill. A pioneer in the advancement of the HACCP system of food safety management, about half his time was spent at hundreds of food processing plants on four continents, where he became known as "the friendly microbiologist," solving problems in real time, usually without organizational or regulatory interference. In his spare time with these companies he advocated the use of solar boxes for cooking food and pasteurizing water in developing countries, served as Secretariat for Safe Supply of Affordable Food Everywhere, and mentored middle school students. Retired since 2012, Sperber continues some professional activities.
Alan Dove is a science writer and reporter for Nature Medicine, Nature Biotechnology, and Bioscience Technology. He also teaches at the NYU School of Journalism and blogs at http://dovdox.com.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
Robert E. Brackett
Illinois Institute of Technology
Consumers are demanding food that is less processed without understanding its risks.
A globalized food industry can amplify foodborne disease outbreaks.
Sensitive tests can trace food contamination that would have gone unnoticed in the past.
For most species, food is highly perishable and likely to be loaded with pathogens, if it is available at all. Even human food was often nasty, brutish, and short-lived until recently. In barely more than a century, however, a series of scientific breakthroughs revolutionized the way we eat. With modern agriculture and a scientific understanding of foodborne disease, we now enjoy a seemingly unending supply of the safest foods that have ever existed.
Unfortunately, the food system has become a victim of its own success. A generation of people with no memory of ancient diseases has begun to reject such fundamental safety measures as milk pasteurization. Meanwhile, the globalization of the food industry has fueled massive—and highly publicized—outbreaks of foodborne illness. Both trends were on display at the conference, which drew a diverse audience from the food industry, academic institutions, and government agencies.
Feed the world
Frank Yiannas, vice president of food safety at Wal-Mart Stores Inc., began his keynote presentation with a humorous history of food safety. In 2000 BC, hunter-gatherers needed to eat fresh food quickly, before it spoiled. Later, people started salting food to preserve it. Pasteurization, canning, irradiation, and other technologies developed in the 19th and 20th centuries made nutritious food available year-round. By 2000, however, consumers began to reject preserved foods, bringing civilization back to its original problem: eating fresh food quickly before it spoils. "What we've seen for example is moms trying to do the right thing by their kids and serving them an unpasteurized juice product, because they think it's safer and healthier, and it's resulting in illnesses," Yiannas said.
Misinformed consumers are not the only challenge. The sprawling worldwide food industry operates across multiple regulatory and corporate systems, making errors and contamination hard to trace. Citing data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Yiannas explained that the incidence of most foodborne infections has remained largely unchanged over the past two decades, while a few pathogens have become more common.
Despite these problems, the modern food landscape is a boon by any historical measure. "A lot of people have safe, affordable, and nutritious food at a fraction of their earned dollar. Remember that," Yiannas said.
To explain why it is hard to keep the food supply safe, he reviewed the trends shaping the food industry. Recent years featured an explosion of food choices and a simultaneous polarization of discussions about food. Grocery stores of the 1980s carried an average of 15 000 products; in the 2000s, that number had risen to 50 000. The availability of online shopping has expanded food choices into the millions, including previously rare items imported from around the world. At the same time, consumers have split into distinct factions around particular food choices, such as organic produce or unpasteurized milk.
Public awareness of food safety is also at an all-time high, according to Yiannas. More sensitive tests for microbes, better tracking of food purchases, and a 24-hour news cycle have made foodborne diseases a hot topic. Yiannas cited an outbreak of Salmonella typhimurium in 2008. DNA fingerprinting of the outbreak strain allowed epidemiologists to link the widely scattered cases to a single peanut butter processing company. The resulting scandal prompted Congress to develop the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), overhauling the nation's food monitoring system.
Globalization is also reshaping the food landscape, with ingredients for a single meal often coming from dozens of countries; but eating local food is not necessarily safer. "The world's largest E. coli outbreak, in Germany, [was] traced back to local food—a small local organic sprout farmer," Yiannas said, adding that "outbreaks are becoming larger and the world is becoming smaller." With the rise of social media, outbreaks of fear are also gaining momentum. He cited the "pink slime" controversy, in which sales of a beef product with no safety problems plummeted because a groundswell of consumers suddenly found it disgusting.
A tangled food web
Robert E. Brackett, a professor of food science and nutrition at Illinois Institute of Technology, gave the second keynote presentation, which also examined the disjunction between real and perceived food safety risks. Many types of risk arise in food processing, and Brackett reviewed the thorny problem of balancing them. Even testing for pathogens in food carries a danger of false positive and false negative results. "This [particular problem] is something that troubles the industry, because consumers want more testing, but when it comes up negative they're assuming there's nothing there, and that may not be the case," Brackett explained.
While consumers often find acute food safety problems such as Salmonella infection alarming, chronic risks from normally occurring substances such as saturated fats take a larger toll on public health. Worse, a major scare focusing on a particular food can lead to poor dietary choices. Brackett described a recent outbreak of pathogenic Escherichia coli traced to fresh spinach, which led many people to give up all leafy green vegetables. "On one hand you had the regulatory agencies saying you'd better not eat spinach right now, on the other hand you had nutritionists saying we need to have more fresh produce," he said.
A general backlash against the food industry also leads some consumers to see risks where none have been found; genetically modified crops, irradiated foods, and pasteurized juices have all run afoul of such fears. But rejecting technologies that make food safer and more affordable also carries economic risks, such as rising prices and company bankruptcies. Government interventions do not necessarily help; consumers and industry groups may consider the government's reaction to a food scare inadequate or inappropriate and react accordingly at election time.
Untangling this knot of interlocking risks now falls to government regulators and industry managers. The FSMA directs the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to conduct "science-based risk analysis" of foods. For food companies, a credible risk management strategy is an essential part of the business plan. "When there's an outbreak or when there's a food safety problem, the brand is sometimes very badly harmed, irreparably in some cases, and the shareholders don't like that," Brackett explained.
To assess risks, Brackett recommends the approach outlined in a 1994 National Academy of Sciences report, which argued for broad risk analyses rather than narrow, strictly technical discussions. Major components of this strategy include questioning underlying assumptions about a perceived risk and getting input from parties that might be affected. As an example, Brackett presented data on Listeria monocytogenes, a bacterium commonly associated with processed meats. Deli meats are indeed the top source of L. monocytogenes infection, but the second most common source is pasteurized milk, a food most experts consider safe. Meanwhile, the world's largest and deadliest outbreak occurred in 2012 as a result of contaminated cantaloupe, a source nobody in the industry had expected. "It's important to include a much broader consideration of the other risks that you may not have thought about," Brackett concluded.
Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention
Texas A&M University
William H. Sperber
The Friendly Microbiologist LLC
Bold Bear Food Safety
Long-term sequellae of foodborne outbreaks can be worse than the effects of acute diseases, with high economic and health costs.
Consumers' reactions to food scares are often perplexing and can drive up food costs without increasing safety.
Foods that lack critical control points can only be rendered safe by proper cooking, but labeling does not make this fact clear.
Rigorous labeling regulations cannot guarantee consumer compliance with preparation recommendations.
Market response to pathogens
The meeting's first session covered the economic, social, and policy aspects of food safety. Tanya Roberts of the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention started the discussion with an overview of the economics of controlling foodborne pathogens. Economic theorists assume that markets operate in an idealized form, with all participants having perfect information about all goods. "They essentially assume away the food safety problem," Roberts said. In the food markets of the real world, information about foodborne pathogens is often nonexistent, difficult to interpret, or carefully hidden from consumers.
This information gap carries enormous costs to society. CDC estimates that 48 million cases of foodborne illness occur each year, resulting in 128 000 hospitalizations and 3000 deaths, but those figures only capture acute outcomes. Long-term sequellae of foodborne illnesses can be far more damaging. Acute infections and deaths from Toxoplasma gondii caused about $0.1 billion in economic damage in 1996, but congenital transmission of the microbe causes many cases of mental retardation and blindness, costing another $7.7 billion.
To fix this problem, regulators should create stronger economic incentives for food companies to reduce risks. "If you have strong food safety goals, companies will look for solutions," Roberts said. She added that databases disclosing settlements in food safety liability cases and public access to food testing results could help provide those incentives.
Once companies are motivated to fix a problem, benefit-cost analyses can identify the most efficient interventions. The solutions may not be what regulators expected. One recent study found that farmers' herd management strategies have the biggest impact on the levels of pathogens in poultry and beef, "yet on-farm management is not part of the USDA regulations, so that's ... something we should consider," Roberts said.
Thrill-seeking in the buffet line
Victoria Salin of Texas A&M University also studies food economics, with an emphasis on the frequently irrational behavior of consumers. Food is a basic survival requirement, but we have other motivates for buying it; a combination of individual taste, family tradition, health, safety, and entertainment value drive food purchases. Perception of food safety relies heavily on credence, and varies dramatically among individuals. Some people are averse to foods or ingredients they perceive as risky, while others seek them out. "These classifications probably are not absolute, there [are] probably certain eating occasions where you would behave in a risk-seeking sort of way," Salin said.
Consumer inconsistency continues during a foodborne pathogen scare. Polls after a major recall of contaminated vegetables revealed that some people began avoiding imported vegetables, others shopped at major retailers perceived as lower-risk, and some made no change in their diets. Among the most concerned individuals, the most common coping mechanism was to read the news more often. "Is that very effective in controlling food safety?" Salin said.
Companies may respond more rationally to food scares, at least in an economic sense. After a recall of one brand of peanut butter, other brands increased their prices despite stable production costs. Economists predict exactly that outcome when fewer companies compete in a market. "When food safety regulation affects and increases consolidation of the industry, I think that's something that we have to watch out for, because consumer welfare is [affected] when the cost of food goes up," Salin said.
Houston, we have a pathogen
William H. Sperber of The Friendly Microbiologist argued that regulators should also take a rational approach to food safety, employing rigorous science as a basis for regulations. He began by describing a central principle in modern food safety, the hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) system, which he and his colleagues developed 40 years ago. At the time, Pillsbury, NASA, and the U.S. Army were collaborating to prepare safe foods for the military and astronauts. It was Sperber's job to analyze foodborne hazards for the program. His HACCP approach became the standard for the food industry in 1975, and is now part of the Codex Alimentarius, which sets food standards internationally.
A HACCP analysis begins with careful documentation of a product, its production process, and its intended uses. A multidisciplinary team then finds potential hazards in the production process, identifies critical control points where manufacturers can reduce those hazards, and develops detailed specifications and plans for managing each control point. Critical control points include such steps as pasteurization, canning, and acidification of foods.
HACCP does not work for foods that lack critical control points, a fact Sperber says regulators have ignored in recent years. "[HACCP's] early success unexpectedly created the false expectation that all foods could be produced and marketed free of pathogens," he said. That expectation led the FDA and USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) to create "HACCP" rules for products such as raw seafood and unpasteurized juice, whose production lacks critical control points. Instead of misusing the term, Sperber argues that the agencies should have acknowledged that such foods are inherently unsafe, and that consumers are responsible for avoiding them or cooking them properly to destroy pathogens.
Dane Bernard of Bold Bear Food Safety gave the session's final talk, reviewing the roles of government regulators, industry leaders, consumers, and public figures in food safety. Each group views the problem differently. "My perception of what is an acceptable level of protection that I'm going to provide with a raw chicken product that I'm going to sell is probably different than your perception of what that level of protection should be," Bernard said. The difference is important: current regulations frequently use the term "acceptable level of protection" without rigorously defining it.
Regulators are clearer about the responsibility for food safety, placing most of the burden on industry. That pattern holds not only at the federal level but also in state and local food handling rules. Within the food industry, most of the regulations focus on food processors and retailers rather than on farmers. "The manufacturing sector ... is the neck in the hourglass, everything has to flow through there; that's where raw materials are transformed into something somebody can eat," Bernard said.
The weakest link in the food chain, however, may be at the end. Bernard described a 2006 outbreak of Salmonella that was traced to a particular brand of uncooked packaged chicken Kiev. In accordance with regulations, the manufacturer included cooking directions and warning labels saying to bake the meat until it reached a 165° Fahrenheit internal temperature. Nonetheless, some consumers apparently failed to follow the instructions, and got sick.
Public figures can also be part of the problem. Bernard pointed to the new phenomenon of food "influencers" on social media, some of whom have achieved tremendous commercial success while routinely making unproven and dangerous claims. "I wish [influencers] would provide balanced information," Bernard said, but there is little incentive for them to do so.
Linda J. Harris
University of California, Davis
Bureau of Microbial Hazards, Health Canada
Fresh produce is important for a healthy diet but hard to keep safe.
Animal products can become contaminated at multiple points in their processing.
Drying, one of the oldest food preservation techniques, does not always destroy pathogens.
Skip the sprouts?
The meeting's second session covered technologies for keeping food safe after harvest and during production. Linda J. Harris of the University of California, Davis, began the discussion with a focus on food safety risks in produce, a broad classification that includes many fresh foods, including fruits, vegetables, tubers, culinary herbs, sprouted seeds, and—thanks to a recent FDA ruling—tree nuts. People prepare and eat these foods in a huge variety of ways, ranging from raw to heavily cooked and processed.
Nutritionists are big fans of produce, which represent "one of the few foods that we spend a fair amount of government funds promoting," Harris noted. That effort seems to be working; purchases of fresh fruits and vegetables have risen in recent years. Unfortunately, those foods are also consistent sources of foodborne pathogens. Sixteen percent of foodborne disease outbreaks in recent years have been linked to produce.
Different types of produce are associated with different pathogens. Sprouts and leafy greens are most likely to carry pathogenic E. coli, while tomatoes tend to harbor Salmonella and berries carry viruses and protozoan parasites. "We're not sure entirely why that is the case, but certainly targeting a virus in a control measure is different than targeting Salmonella," Harris said, adding that "knowing the enemy, knowing where to focus is important as part of the control strategy."
The scope and size of a foodborne outbreak tends to decrease as the point of contamination gets closer to the consumer. Foods contaminated in a restaurant or home may infect a handful of people, but produce that picks up a pathogen on a farm can sicken thousands across wide geographical areas. An outbreak of E. coli strain O157:H7 in 2006, for example, stemmed from spinach contaminated on a farm, and caused an estimated 4000 infections across 26 states and parts of Canada.
Sprouts can be particularly dangerous because their manufacturing process entails soaking soil-contaminated seeds in water, an ideal environment for culturing pathogens. Since 1988, there have been at least 55 outbreaks of foodborne pathogens linked to sprouts. "There's one product that I would say almost universally ... food microbiologists don't eat, and that is sprouts," Harris said.
Keeping pathogens down on the farm
Manpreet Singh of Purdue University talked about strategies for combating pathogens on foods from animals, not only meat but also eggs, milk, and seafood. These foods can harbor a range of dangerous microbes, including such newsmakers as Salmonella, Clostridium, and pathogenic strains of E. coli. As Americans increasingly get their meals to go, Listeria monocytogenes, long associated with processed meats, is also becoming more common.
Pathogens can reach animal products from several sources, including through horizontal transmission from one animal to the next and in contaminated feed or water, unsanitary living environments, and unclean slaughterhouse and dairy processing facilities.
In response to outbreaks, food producers have tried to limit some of those sources of transmission, starting at the farm. "There used to be a time when anybody could walk up to a farm and check the animals out ... I don't think that's true anymore," Singh said. He added that large modern farms now require visitors to sign in and out and wear protective coveralls to limit the risk of bringing in new pathogens. Farmers also test animals and carcasses for a wide range of microbes, quarantine new arrivals to prevent animal-to-animal disease introductions, and use feed additives to reduce pathogen loads in animals' guts.
Slaughtering and processing facilities are also subject to scrutiny, but some industry practices are inherently risky. "The majority of the poultry in the U.S. is chilled by immersion chilling," Singh said, explaining that 20 000 chicken carcasses may be submerged at a time in one large pool of cold water for cooling. A single dirty bird can then contaminate the entire batch. The alternative air-chilling method cools the poultry as it hangs in the air on individual hooks, reducing the risk of cross-contamination considerably. This technique is mandatory in Europe but not popular in the U.S.
Echoing Bernard's presentation, Singh agreed that consumers and food preparers carry considerable responsibility for food safety, especially with animal products. Maintaining correct storage temperatures, cooking foods properly, and cleaning the preparation area are all critical but poorly monitored risk-reduction measures. "At each and every step we need to have effective control measures so that the hazard is controlled," he said.
Jeffrey Farber of the Bureau of Microbial Hazards at Health Canada finished the session with a talk about low-moisture foods, a category traditionally considered safe; drying food is one of the oldest methods of preserving it. Paradoxically, the same low moisture that prevents microbes from growing can also help preserve them, allowing pathogens to survive for months or years.
Even time-tested preparation methods do not guarantee safety. Farber described an outbreak of Salmonella traced to contaminated chia seeds. "It's actually one of the oldest cultivated crops, and it goes back centuries, basically back to the Aztec tribes in Mexico," he said. Farmers harvest the seeds, moisten them with water, leave them overnight to sprout, and then dry them on trays in the sun before grinding them into a powder. The resulting food is high in protein, dietary fiber, and antioxidants. However, the processing does not reliably kill bacteria, so seeds that are contaminated initially will yield contaminated chia powder. Contaminated chia caused 63 cases of disease in Canada during one outbreak, with many patients hospitalized.
Other dry foods, such as milk powder, spices, and tea, have had similar problems. Twenty outbreaks have been linked to tree nuts, and 44 to confections and chocolate.
Pathogens can contaminate low-moisture foods in several ways. Soil left on crops, inadequately cleaned equipment in a processing facility, and raw material added to a product after processing can all result in foodborne illnesses. Heat treatment can kill pathogens very rapidly, but only if the food is heated while wet. "Microorganisms in the moist state are very susceptible to heating; however ... the heat resistance of microorganisms goes up dramatically in the dried state," Farber said.
That resistance can also make it hard to decontaminate manufacturing facilities. Farber cited a 1998 outbreak of Salmonella agona linked to toasted oat cereal, which prompted the manufacturer to disinfect an entire plant. In 2008, the same strain contaminated cereal from the same plant, possibly as a result of construction workers removing an old wall that had harbored the bacteria for a decade. Farber advocates including a robust inactivation step like moist heat treatment in low-moisture food processes, and using indicator strains of bacteria, common contaminating strains that are difficult to destroy but easy to test for, to monitor facility hygiene.
Marjorie Nolan Cohn
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
North Carolina State University
Messages about food safety need to be tailored for specific audiences.
The food industry's tradition of avoiding discussion of risk may be backfiring.
Smartphone apps and targeted websites can help educate people about food safety.
Big microbes on campus
Carol Byrd-Bredbenner of Rutgers University started the meeting's final session, on public communication for food safety and nutrition. Byrd-Bredbenner described a case study that aimed to tailor food safety messages for young adults. "It's very important that we talk to our audience and not just talk to a general group, because we know that those messages to the general group really don't resonate with the consumers that we want [them] to resonate with," she said.
Byrd-Bredbenner and her colleagues surveyed over 4000 college students and found that the students' food safety knowledge was generally poor, as were their self-reported food handling behaviors. Nonetheless, the students felt reasonably confident in their ability to handle food safely. The researchers then brought a smaller group into a test kitchen and provided them with ingredients and a recipe for chicken fajitas, a potentially hazardous dish. Their experiment largely validated the survey results: "98% didn't use a thermometer, and 65% did not choose to thaw chicken in a safe way," Byrd-Bredbenner said.
To correct those deficits, the investigators convened focus groups and developed a marketing campaign, using a combination of social media, table tents in dining halls, posters, online videos, and special on-campus events. "If somehow you blocked out the table tents, you blocked out the posters, whatever, we were there in your face having these fun events," Byrd-Bredbenner said. Follow-up surveys showed that the advertising blitz caused a 10%–15% improvement in students' food safety knowledge and increased the likelihood of hand washing. The team also did a similar project to improve food safety knowledge in middle school children.
A game of risk
Benjamin Chapman of North Carolina State University also emphasized the need for tailored messages for different audiences, particularly when talking about the nebulous concept of risk. He began with a story about a colleague who approached him to confess that he drinks unpasteurized milk illegally imported into the state. "We engaged in this conversation about why does he drink raw milk? He talked about really distrusting the food industry and really looking at science poorly," Chapman said.
The complexity and contradictions in people's views, and the probabilistic nature of risk, make food safety risks hard to discuss. Chapman advocates being open and frank about the uncertainties. That is not the approach the food industry has taken traditionally. "We don't often talk about the risks associated with certain types of foods," he said. The trend, he added, is to communicate, "Everything is safe ... but there are risks associated with it."
To get this seemingly contradictory message across, food safety advocates need to start by understanding the audience, especially identifying whom people trust. Chapman cited the Abuela Project, in which researchers focused on queso fresco, a popular Hispanic-style cheese frequently contaminated with Listeria. Instead of using generic advertising messages, the researchers educated older women in the Hispanic community about the risks of preparing the cheese, as those women were viewed as authorities on food. Chapman argued that a similar approach could work with online "influencers" who create or amplify misinformation. "We in this room are not trusted by the people we're really trying to communicate to, so ... how do we find the people that are trusted to get the messages out?"
Marjorie Nolan Cohn and her colleagues at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics tackled the food safety communication problem with a website and an accompanying smart phone application called "Is My Food Safe?" The website offers recipes as well as videos on home food safety, the importance of hand washing, and tips for finding a dietician. The app focuses on questions people have as they work in the kitchen.
The "Is it Done?" section of the app covers cooking temperatures, a longstanding problem in food safety. "The challenge for us is that consumers are not using food thermometers," Cohn explained. In surveys, only 20% of Americans say that they regularly use a food thermometer, but even that is likely an overestimate. Respondents could be using the thermometer incorrectly or lying about their compliance with safety recommendations. The developers hope that the app will improve survey results by providing consumers with an easy reference for safe cooking temperatures.
By looking at the "Time to Toss" section, cooks can answer the age-old question of when to throw away leftovers. Some of the answers might be surprising. "There is that perception that certain foods are always safe, like condiments. How many people open condiments and then they are in your refrigerator, on the door probably, for years?" Cohn asked. Most condiments have recommended shelf lives of only a few months after opening.
The final section of the app provides an interactive quiz on kitchen safety and food handling, including such seldom-checked items as refrigerator temperatures. To date, the app has had 70 000 downloads, "which honestly isn't too bad considering it's a food safety app and not ... Candy Crush," Cohn said.
The meeting concluded with a panel discussion, in which speakers from the final session tackled questions and comments from the audience. One question about the difficulty of discussing food safety with the media prompted several suggestions for better press communication. Chapman noted that he participates in over a hundred media interviews in a year, and tries to emphasize both the importance of food safety and the uncertainties surrounding foodborne pathogen risks. Byrd-Bredbenner agreed that media outreach is essential: "I think a lot of the responsible media folks really would like to have some information, but they often don't know where to go to get it," she said.
In a reply to Cohn's presentation, an audience member pointed out that recommended food shelf lives are sometimes arbitrary, especially for acidic condiments. Cohn conceded the point but argued that consumers need clear answers rather than vague qualitative guidelines. "I'll eat a yogurt if it's two days expired and it smells okay, but I'm not going to tell [the public that]," Cohn said. A more insidious problem is that the USDA and FDA often disagree on shelf lives, creating two conflicting standards.
Panelists also delved further into the problem of social media influencers and manufactured controversies. Chapman argued that the food industry's tradition of concealing information will not work in the new media world. "There are things that we know about that are not the most appetizing, and the influencers want to know that stuff," he said, adding that "those influencers want the sciencey stuff."
How can the food industry explain risks candidly without frightening consumers?
Should regulators focus more effort on animal husbandry practices to reduce contamination?
What responsibility do food "influencers" have for providing accurate information?
Will increased testing of foods improve safety?
What are the best strategies for minimizing contamination of high-risk foods such as sprouts?
Can educating the public about food safety produce lasting changes in behavior?
Should farmers' markets and other nontraditional food outlets be regulated more closely?