Despite stringent standards and extensive audits on food safety, food poisoning sickens around 76 million Americans and kills over 5000 each year. Most of the fatalities arise from botulism, salmonellosis, and staphylococcal food poisoning. The emergence of a class of new drug resistant pathogens such as campylobacter jenjuni, shiga toxin-producing E. coli, Listeria monocytogenes and cyclospora cayetanensis have complicated matters further.

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It is not just the end-consumer who is impacted by inadequate food safety. Everyone in the supply chain is accountable and gets impacted. The manufacturers are forced to recall finished products. For instance, 826,000 pounds of ground beef had to be recalled by a certain manufacturer recently as it was found to be contaminated. The retailer also has a huge responsibility of storing food according the directions specified. In a 2009 Salmonella Typhimurium outbreak that was traced to peanut butter and peanut paste from a specific manufacturer, the report specifically mentioned improper handling, preparation, and storage as the contributing reasons for the disaster.

Standards and Regulatory Bodies of the Industry
The US Senate recently approved a $125bn budget for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and a key aspect is the extra funding allocated for ensuring food safety. In a recent development, the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) joined forces with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with the objective of developing new food safety rules.

This is interesting as currently, responsibilities such as food safety monitoring, inspection, and labelling rest with multiple agencies in the US government such as USDA, which oversees meat, poultry and egg products. The FDA oversees most other food products while the US Commerce Department's National Marine Fisheries Service inspects fish. The significant budget allocation and the convergence of two major regulatory bodies point to the rising importance being given by the federal government on food safety.

The collaboration among federal agencies will mean more stringent food safety audits and penal action in response to violations. Everyone in the supply chain starting from suppliers, manufacturers, stockists to retailers will need to establish practices and processes to ensure that they comply with the standards established by the federal agencies.

Prevention is Better than Cure
When it comes to food safety, prevention is better than cure. It is important to identify the areas of risks that can lead to food safety issues. For instance improper holding temperature can lead to stale meat. Poor personal hygiene of personnel involved in preparing or cooking can contaminate food. Inadequate cooking and contaminated equipment deliver deadly pathogens through to the consumers. Any process or methodology to prevent food safety violation should factor in such contributing risk factors and devise a mechanism to prevent such risks from taking place. For instance providing employee training and committing to standard operating procedures for tasks, such as cooling, thawing and cooking are some of the ways to prevent risks in food production.

Quality processes must incorporate HACCP standards to:

  • Identify potential hazards and assess the risk or likelihood of occurrence of the hazards.
  • Determine the Critical Control Points (CCPs). Determine steps that can be controlled to eliminate or minimize the hazard.
  • Establish the criteria (tolerances, target level) that must met to ensure that CCP is under control.
  • Establish a monitoring system.
  • Establish the corrective action when CCP is not under control.
  • Establish procedures for verification.
  • Establish documentation and record keeping.

ISO 22000 Food Safety Management Standard also provides a set of guidelines to establish a food safety management system (FSMS) and to document your food safety management system (FSMS).

How to Ascertain Risks
As discussed earlier, safety risks can be present anywhere in the entire supply chain of the food industry. Hence, it is important that food suppliers, manufacturers, stockists, and retailers work with quality and compliance experts who have extensive experience in the food safety audit domain. Such expertise will help the food industry to quickly identify safety risks, to proactively address them, and to protect and enhance their reputation as quality food suppliers.

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