The Secret Ingredients in Food Safety

The Secret Ingredients in Food Safety

As contaminations continue to make headlines, manufacturers are under constant scrutiny to keep our food safe. But as globalization continues and consumer demands change, their job is only getting tougher.

The magnitude of a problem is often determined by how much attention it gets. Recently the food & beverage industry has been receiving more attention than it might like, as contaminated products and subsequent recalls continue to make headlines. While any products under suspicion start vanishing from grocery store shelves and produce aisles, the media latches on to the story and, just like that, customers start disappearing, too.

Unfortunately for the food industry, the negative stories keep on coming. Back in 2006 there were widespread reports of spinach being contaminated with E. coli. This year salmonella bacteria were discovered in large quantities of tomatoes. Not long after, the same was suspected of jalapeno peppers imported from Mexico.

Each of these stories not only hurts consumer confidence in a particular company, but they also serve to harm the public's perception of the nation's food supply as a whole. That's one reason why food & beverage manufacturers take these events just as seriously as anyone.

"Any time there is an event in the industry, the first thing we do is convene our food safety council and try to understand what happened and why," says Bryan Farnsworth, vice president of quality management for Hormel Foods Corp. "We discuss whether it could happen to us and determine if we have the appropriate controls in place to prevent it. They're used as learning tools."

Food for Thought

While the recent produce contaminations might be more well known, many others also have made the food industry take notice. For example, a salmonella outbreak forced Nebraska-based ConAgra Foods to implement massive recalls of Peter Pan peanut butter that were linked to 288 confirmed cases in 39 states. Later the company also had to recall large quantities of its Banquet brand of turkey and chicken pot pies for the same reason. In the aftermath, the company's board of directors decided to give its CEO a 41% pay cut.

The largest beef recall in U.S. history also happened this past February, when California-based Westland Meats recalled 143 million pounds of beef that was reported to have been used in products made by ConAgra, General Mills, Heinz and Nestl, according to the Chicago Tribune. That made the 21 million pounds of beef believed to be infected with E. coli that Topps Meat Co. recalled last year seem like small potatoes (no pun intended). But it still resulted in the company filing for bankruptcy protection in November 2007.

No product market seems immune. In March, PepsiCo Inc.'s Quaker Oats unit recalled Aunt Jemima pancake and waffle mix for a potential salmonella risk, while E. coli fears prompted General Mills to recall over 400,000 cases of Totino's and Jeno's frozen pizzas.

As the list continues to grow (and we haven't even touched on contaminated food coming out of Asia, such as the current scare over tainted dairy products and candy bars from China), it paints a pretty dire picture for the food supply. But is the risk being exaggerated? While certainly none of these examples do much to boost consumer confidence, according to Bob Brackett, chief science officer for the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), there is definitely another side to the story.

Brackett points out that in addition to increased media attention, recalls are often the result of manufacturers simply having much better tools to detect various pathogens. In addition, digital communication has helped agencies like the CDC, USDA and FDA recognize patterns in what would previously have been regarded as isolated cases, and find the "smoking gun" that leads to one specific contamination. The downside? Better detective work can make the problem look worse than it really is.

"It makes it look like every product out there is contaminated, but the risk from any particular meal is extremely small," explains Brackett, who has also served as director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "Of course, it's still too high for manufacturers and they're doing everything they can to eliminate it completely. As a result, even the best companies might occasionally need to issue a recall."

Nutritional Sources

In the past 10 years, food manufacturers in the United States have started sourcing much larger quantities of ingredients from overseas suppliers. While it's true that manufacturers are challenged to make sure these new players have the appropriate systems in place, its full impact on the safety of the food supply could be overstated. Why? Because it's an easy target for blame.

"Globalization is often cited as a point of blame because it's easy to say they just don't have the level of scrutiny around food that we have here," says Chuck Desmond, vice president in the consumer products national practice for Hitachi Consulting Corp., a global business and IT consulting firm. "But many recalls also have to do with handling and a variety of other issues. So you need to think holistically about this issue because there are various reasons that recalls have increased in the last decade."

One reason often overlooked is the growing number of additives and ingredients used in food products today, which opens up manufacturers to more variables and a much broader supply base. According to Desmond, those numbers have increased on average by three to four times in the past 10 years, due in large part to consumer demand for labels that show more sources of nutrition.

"These extra ingredients are all being made by different suppliers and manufacturers have to work with each one separately," explains Desmond. "That's where the challenge comes in. It not only means more suppliers, it means more avenues for potential quality issues or contamination, and a much higher strictness on the manufacturer's part for being able to prevent them in their products."

As part of its "preferred supplier" initiative focused on key ingredient categories, Hormel Foods recently reduced its supply base by 30%. This gives the company an easier group of suppliers to manage and an opportunity to understand their food safety activities, conduct on-site visits and collaborate on new ideas, innovations and food safety activities. More third-party audits are also being conducted than had been in the past.

"If you have multiple suppliers it's more difficult to do all of those things," Farnsworth explains. "And you need to have a system in place where you constantly evaluate your suppliers and the inputs to their process -- to make sure ingredients are coming from a facility that knows the source, has validated systems, facilities, equipment, controls and traceability in place."

While larger manufactures are able to have their own employees present right where the product is being manufactured, those without those types of resources often rely on second- or third-party auditors to make sure that the source is meeting their specifications. However, as audits are becoming more common and more frequent, Brackett says the industry is challenged to settle on a standard for how they are conducted.

"One of the issues that many of the manufacturers have is being subjected to multiple audits," he explains. "So they're spending enormous amounts of time and money perhaps doing audits for 10 different customers."

To help improve auditing practices, the GMA is working with food manufacturers from all over the country to establish a set of standards that will be consistent between different commodities, and from region to region.

Clearing the Shelves

Issuing a recall isn't something any food manufacturer wants to do, but most have systems built in to protect themselves should any problems ever arise. That way, they are able to respond quickly, efficiently and in a manner that gets the product off the market as soon as possible.

For example, mock recalls are often conducted throughout the year as a way to prepare their facilities to quickly handle these events. Hormel Foods conducts its own drills every month, simulating events that could affect one or more of its facilities. The exercises are unannounced, timed and later reviewed to determine what areas need improvement.

"They could be based on an ingredient issue that we were made aware of by a supplier, through our own testing, or a customer concern," Farnsworth explains. "Once we started doing them, we saw our responses improve dramatically. They help us reinforce the need to properly identify the window in a recall event, to be able to look at the entire picture and figure out how big the scope really is."

Mock recalls also typically include the use of track-and-trace technologies, which are used to keep tabs on ingredients as they enter a facility and how they are used at every step of the manufacturing process. However, they can also be used in the event of a recall to hunt down potentially contaminated ingredients.

Not only can traceability help contain the effects of a contamination once it occurs, but it can also reduce the cost of one by reducing the product's exposure. By tracing a contamination back to a specific lot, manufacturers can safely decide to recall only those that are affected -- as opposed to everything they manufactured. Once you can do that, Desmond says, it's all a matter of how quickly it gets done.

"How quickly can you discern which lots you need to recall? Of course, the more time that passes the more potential for harm to the consumer and harm to your company," he explains. "If you don't have a system in place, companies might be inclined to expedite the process by simply recalling everything."

To help speed up the process, most food manufacturers have some sort of tracking system in place. Hormel's are in-house versions, but there are also a variety of options available from IT solutions providers such as TraceGains Inc., a company that specializes in helping food manufacturers reduce risks throughout their supply chain.

By attaining continuous attribute visibility to all ingredients, in addition to identity preservation and continuous comparison of on-floor activities, business rules and compliancy requirements, TraceGains provides what William Pape, the company's founder and executive vice president, calls "positively assured traceability."

"There are a lot of food manufacturers who think they have traceability, but over the last 10 years the majority of FDA and USDA investigations have concluded that what they have is inadequate," explains Pape. "We augment what most companies think of as their traceability system and leverage their existing technology investments."

Eating the Cost

Whether it's implementing a new technology, stopping production for an afternoon to run a mock recall, or doing more frequent evaluation of your supply base, it all costs money. But in the food industry, those costs seem to be more about risk than they are about return on investment.

If something can be put in place to help ensure that a contamination is going to be eliminated, Brackett notes that in most cases the investment's going to be made. "Manufacturers are being more aggressive in trying to avoid problems, even if they aren't seeing any. The fact that more of these outbreaks have occurred makes them much more vigilant in trying to control them," he says.

For most food manufacturers, safety systems begin with a proper risk assessment. Hormel looks at all the risks in its processes and determines how best to control them, according to Farnsworth. At that point, the challenge becomes finding the best and most economical way to control whatever risks have been identified.

"Costs don't determine whether or not we do something that will improve our food safety controls," says Farnsworth. "If we identify something we need to do to control the process, we're going to find a way to get it done. In spite of whatever costs are involved, I think the vast majority of companies in the industry are constantly looking to make their food safety systems more robust."

Over the next several years, those in the food industry expect continued improvement to their ability to ensure the safety of the nation's food supply. Manufacturers will do more research to stay ahead of potential threats, developing products with the safest ingredients, packaging and handling criteria in mind. That's because good companies know that you can't predict what might challenge the food industry next, says Brackett.

"Just because you haven't had a problem doesn't mean it won't happen," he adds. "Food safety is one of those odd things where the better you are, the more it looks like you don't need it. But even though things might look good, you can never assume anything."

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