How can we do better?

Campylobacter bacteria are the number one cause of food-related gastrointestinal illness in the U.S. This scanning electron microscope image shows the characteristic spiral, or corkscrew, shape of C. jejuni cells and related structures.
Photo by De Wood, digital colorization by Chris Pooley; courtesy of USDA-ARS.

Acording to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), foodborne diseases affect an estimated 48 million people (one in six) in the U.S. each year and cause 128,000 hospitalizations. Unfortunately, foodborne diseases have resulted in about 3,000 deaths per year.

The CDC reports that foodborne diseases are caused by agents such as bacteria, chemical irritants, parasites, toxins, viruses and some unknown pathogens.

The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) identifies botulism, campylobacteriosis, cholera, E. coli infection, listeriosis, salmonellosis, shigellosis, typhoid fever, vibrio infection and yersiniosis as bacterial foodborne illnesses. Hepatitis A and norovirus are viruses that can cause foodborne illness. Foodborne illnesses caused by parasites include amebiasis, cryptosporidiosis, cyclosporiasis, giardiasis and trichinosis.

According to the VDH, foodborne diseases are spread by actions such as failing to wash hands properly before and after handling food, failing to clean food surfaces, and failing to heat foods to the proper temperature. The agency reports that bacteria grow in nutrient-rich foods in temperatures ranging between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

In 2011, the CDC presented the results of an 11-year study (1998 to 2008). The agency identified commodities that these pathogens lurk in. Produce such as fruits, fungi, vegetables, leafy vegetables, nuts, root vegetables, sprout vegetables and vine-stalk vegetables accounted for nearly half of the illnesses in the U.S. Those illnesses were caused by the norovirus.

Beef, game, pork and poultry caused fewer illnesses, but accounted for 29 percent of the deaths, with poultry causing the most, according to the CDC study. Those deaths were from listeria and salmonella infections.

Food safety audits

With such concern over foodborne illnesses and related deaths, do food safety audits in the U.S. need an overhaul?

“I wouldn’t say that they need an overhaul. That kind of suggests that the problem is with the audits themselves,” says Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist and assistant professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C.

Sanitation to control foodborne microorganisms is important to fresh-cut produce quality. Food microbiologist Isabelle Babic (right) and technician Laurie Gould will check honeydew melon samples applied to agar plates for subsequent growth of disease-causing microbes.
Photo by Scott Bauer, courtesy of USDA-ARS.

“They can provide a snapshot of a system and can be one piece of a food safety program. Issues arise when those requiring audits rely on them as the only measure. Just requiring an audit isn’t enough. It’s more important to be able to make decisions based on practices or situations found within the results [and not focus on whether it was a pass or not],” he explains. “Why trust someone who doesn’t have a stake in your company to verify that your supplier knows how to manage risks as the only check in your system? The good buyers, and there are lots of them, may require audits just to get a supplier in the door, and then do a lot more investigation with their own people.”

Chapman and several other scientists have written a paper about food safety audits and the need for a better “snapshot” or critique of our food safety system. Those involved in the paper were Doug Powell, professor of food safety in the department of diagnostic medicine and pathobiology at Kansas State University; Maria Sol Erdozain and Katija Morley, research assistants at Kansas State University; Roy Costa, president of Environ Health Associates, Inc. in Deland, Fla.; and Charles Dodd.

Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist with North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C., says relying on food safety audits alone is not enough to keep our food system safe.
Photo courtesy of Ben Chapman.

Their abstract states: “This paper identifies limitations of food safety inspections and audits and provides recommendations for strengthening the system, based on developing a strong food safety culture, including risk-based verification steps, throughout the food safety system.”

Simply put, audits are only one tool to keep our food safe, and those audits have their limitations, whether they are conducted by government inspectors or third-party auditors. For instance, with most audits, effectiveness is a matter of an auditor’s “observational judgment and consistency” at the time of the audit, and the amount of training, oversight, knowledge and support they have, the paper infers. Foodborne illness outbreaks have occurred even when farms, processors and retailers went through some type of audit certification.

“Audit reports are only useful if the purchaser or food producer reviews the results, understands the risks addressed by the standards, and makes risk reduction decisions based on the results,” the paper states. “From past examples, there appears to be a disconnect between what auditors provide (a snapshot) and what buyers believe they are doing (a full verification of product and process).”

A better plan

Chapman is interested in how audits are implemented and used, and auditors and buyers shouldn’t rely on them as their only measure of defense against foodborne diseases. The safety of our food is in question when risks still exist from foodborne diseases. He points out that nothing is without risk, because with about 48 million illnesses a year, foodborne pathogens will certainly exist somewhere. The questions is: Can we stop or control these pathogens from harming our food system?

Salmonella is estimated to cause more than 1.3 million cases of human foodborne disease each year.
Photo by Jean Guard-Petter, courtesy of USDA -ARS.

“Over the past 50 years, and even in five years, the industry and regulators seem to learn from outbreaks and investigate causes and put measures in place to reduce the chance they happen again,” Chapman says. “We’re also finding more pathogens and outbreaks due to much better detection and surveillance. There are risks, and the food industry needs to be committed to finding out more about them and vigilant in addressing them.”

With such risks involved in our food system, buyers are taking their own precautions. “People that can identify hazards and understand the system – they are auditing,” Chapman says. “I’ve seen a shift from third-party to increased use of in-house verifiers. A buyer sends their own people to a farm for a visit. They understand the hazards and best risk-reduction practices and aren’t relying on someone else to evaluate it for them. This seems like a good thing.”

In a greenhouse, microbiologist Maria Brandl examines cilantro that she uses as a model plant to investigate the behavior of foodborne pathogens on leaf surfaces.
Photo by Peggy Greb, courtesy of USDA-ARS.

Chapman says a buyer – which can be a retailer, processor or food service company – should welcome the food safety audits. “I’d want to know that the folks who are selling me inputs know what hazards to manage, why they are important, and how to manage them. Then I would want to know whether they actually do it.”

In their paper, the scientists also say that “preventive measures such as instilling and enhancing a food safety culture, where there are shared values throughout the organization that support risk reduction, may improve the safety of the food supply by supplying daily reminders, incentives and food safety priorities in the absence of inspectors or auditors.”

The paper also suggests that the food safety audit system needs enhanced education and training programs. For example, in 2010 a beef processor installed video cameras so auditors could observe 24/7 or randomly how the meat was handled and processed. Immediate improvement was recorded “in days instead of months, and compliance rates consistently exceeded 99 percent,” the paper states.

Chapman and his co-writers point out that companies need to better recognize and identify the causes of contamination. Just because they seem to be doing everything right doesn’t mean they are.

The risks and the need for action are obvious, so what steps can auditors, buyers and companies take to make our food safer? “More information on risks and risk reduction should be shared with everyone from farm to fork,” he says. “Telling consumers that there are risks associated with food, and then providing a full and transparent look into what an industry or firm is doing, right down to testing protocols and results, would create a better environment for creating trust. It also forces others to do the same, which should make everyone better.”

In their paper, the scientists state: “open communication between suppliers and buyers, including expectations and risk management practices, is essential.”

Rocky Womack has written about agriculture and business for more than 25 years and currently serves as a contributing writer and correspondent for agriculture and business magazines, domestically and internationally.