Chet England is director of quality assurance and chief food safety officer for Burger King Corp’s 10,500 restaurants worldwide. He has chaired the National Council of Chain Restaurants’ food-safety task force for seven years, and is past president of the industry affiliate of the National Environmental Health Association.

Q. How concerned are today’s consumers about foodborne illness?

A. By all surveys and reports I’ve seen, they’re very concerned and that concern is growing. That’s probably due to media coverage, which started with the 1993 Jack-in-the-Box incident.

There was a study a few years ago in which a polling firm asked Americans what they were most concerned about. The potential of a foodborne illness contracted from meat was their No. 5 concern. That’s an extremely telling and troubling statement.

Q. Is this fear deserved?

A. The risk of getting sick from any product, let alone meat products, is very small, so the concern is ill-founded. Still, it’s a big issue to the food-service industry in that it frightens people and could result in less consumption.

Q. What pathogens are of concern to the food-service industry?
It varies depending on the products you serve. Pork in general is pretty clean. You don’t hear as much about foodborne illness risks or cases associated with pork products as you do with products like beef and poultry. In pre-cooked pork products like hot dogs and luncheon meats post-process contamination with Listeria monocyogenes is or should be a major concern. There have been some E.coli: O157 and E.coli: O111 incidents related to dried sausage products.

Q. What can producers do to help reduce the risk for foodborne illness?

A. If you can keep the harmful organisms out of the animal in the first place that makes the job of the entire production and supply chain easier downstream. If the organism isn’t there the pressure isn’t on the other parts of the chain.
There are indications that stressed animals tend to shed pathogens in their fecal material at a greater level. Stressed animals are more susceptible to both giving and taking pathogens.

Q. What other methods are being developed to reduce foodborne illness?

A. There is some interesting work being done with poultry and cattle on competitive exclusion, which means you introduce a harmless culture of microorganisms into an animal. That culture of bacteria essentially takes up all of the attachment spaces in the animal, so if the animal does ingest a harmful organism there’s nowhere for it to attach itself and it passes on through. That’s totally harmless to the animal and to humans who eat the meat.

Q. What do producers have to gain by working with food service on food-safety issues?

A. Safe products have a more reliable future in terms of growth. If we have problems then we will sell less, and if we sell less the people who supply us with finished products or raw materials will sell less.

I’m hoping that producers realize we’re in this together. This is a coherent food chain from the producer all the way through to the retailer, and if any part of that chain suffers then the rest of the chain suffers. We cannot afford to point fingers at one another and say: “That’s their problem.” It’s in everybody’s best interest to make sure the product is safe.

Producers should understand our end of the business as much as retailers should try to understand the production end. Consumers have a responsibility in all of this too. The public has a responsibility to make sure that it handles and prepares food in a safe manner.

Q. Will irradiation become more acceptable?

A. The consumer polls I’ve seen show that more consumers are willing to buy irradiated foods, which increases significantly when they understand that it can prevent foodborne illness.

Another issue is that in nearly every poll there is a solid 20 percent that say “under no circumstance” will they buy irradiated products.

Also, while irradiation is very effective against harmful microorganisms, it does not affect any post-process contamination.

Q. Will consumers pay more to ensure a safe product? A. A significant amount of the population says it would pay more if it could be assured that foods would still taste good and perform well. The goal of any industry should be to get to the point where the consumer doesn’t even have to think about food safety, that consumers can take it as a given.