Commentary: Food safety follies

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Nobody inside the industry expects mainstream media to understand the nuances of inspection protocols, the regulatory details governing labeling requirements or even the reality that with the vast majority of the Food Safety and Inspection Service budget devoted to personnel costs, a budget cut—or a sequester—virtually forces agency leadership to impose furloughs.

Although that last piece of reality ought to be common knowledge by now.

That said, there’s no excuse for displaying ignorance of both microbiology and manufacturing, as was showcased by the editorial writers at the Portland (Maine) Press Herald. The lead editorial appearing on the Ides of March was entitled, “Feds should move faster on meat safety rules.”

Here’s how it began:

“Don’t be shocked that more than a year has passed since 20 people became seriously ill from eating beef ground at Hannaford [grocery] stores, and the federal government still hasn’t established rules to prevent the same thing from happening (sic) again.

“USDA has known about the problem for 15 years, so a year more or less probably doesn’t seem like a big deal. Well, it is a big deal, and people who depend on the federal agency to protect the food system deserve a quicker response when a weakness is exposed.”

The editorial goes on to recap an incident in 2011 in which salmonella found in ground beef sickened about 20 people in Maine and six other states. “What happened in 2011 could happen anywhere, and the results could be much worse next time,” the editorial stated.

The problem, according to both the newspaper’s editorial writer and Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), who questioned USDA Undersecretary for Food Safety Elisabeth Hagen during House hearings last week, is that investigators could track the source of the pathogen to Hannaford supermarkets, but because the beef trimmings came from multiple sources, there was no way to determine exactly where the contaminated meat originated.

What comes next? You’ve heard it before: The predictable rant against huge, “mega-firms” dominating the industry that cause exponentially bigger food-safety problems.

“The way the food system has been centralized, a few mega farms and processing plants send products all over the country,” the Press Herald editorial stated. “An outbreak of a deadly bacteria (sic) could be spread to a multitude of stores and restaurants with no way to track it back to the source until more people fall sick.”

No fix to be had

Testifying before the House Agriculture Committee last week, Hagen said her agency has been working with industry to find ways to “fix” the problem voluntarily. Pingree, who sits on the Agriculture Committee, told her, “It's been 15 months. People are saying, ‘Hey, did you ever fix that problem?’ ”

As is true with so many challenges to food safety, if it were simply a matter of “fixing” the problem, it would have been done long ago. Who wants to get caught up in a product recall, or worse, a food-borne illness incident? If it becomes serious enough, your entire organization could be in jeopardy.

But as the “hard-hitting” editorial writers at virtually every newspaper in America love to bluster, “All that is required is that businesses that grind beef for hamburger keep careful records about the sources of the meat that was used.”

It’s that simple. Done deal. Bada boom, bada bing—problem solved.

Right.

That’s because safety assurance in the food industry appears to be, for those on the outside looking in, akin to any other manufacturer’s quality control. A carmaker, for example, could institute fail-safe testing of every single automobile’s braking systems, and thus be assured they’re functioning properly before the car gets shipped off to a dealer.

Unfortunately, that scenario doesn’t work with living, biological systems. Even if the will were there, a processor can’t use product sampling to assure 100% food safety.

But both the majority of consumers, and the majority of media professionals, can’t seem to—or don’t want to—grasp that elementary notion.

No doubt, a federal requirement that anyone producing ground meats maintain a “grinding log” could be useful. In the event of a recall or an outbreak, that information could provide investigators with useful the information on the source(s) of the tainted materials.

“Could” being the operative word.

It won’t eliminate the threat of microbial contamination, any more than banging the drum for more testing upstream would. Either initiative helps, but neither is a total solution.

So in answer to Rep. Pingree’s constituents asking, “Is the problem fixed yet?”

No—not yet.

And don’t hold your breath waiting, unless we as a society decide to eat only sterilized foods.

And if that ever happens, the question then becomes, “Hey, when do we get our real food back?”

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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