Public attention to food safety has never been higher. In the current environment, with high public and media attention, one foodborne illness outbreak is too many for any business. Despite heightened media attention and a tendency to focus on the unusual, the public, regulatory communities, foodservice industry and academia must continuously develop better food safety systems. The goal must be to absolutely ensure safe food from farm to fork. Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point, or HACCP, may be the answer and is increasingly being used in the foodservice industry.
In an effort to help clarify the alleged food safety problem, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released new data updating estimates of food-related illnesses and deaths for the U.S. Previous estimates had indicated that foodborne illness caused upwards of 76 million illnesses and up to 9,000 deaths each year. The new estimates are dramatically lower, with the number of deaths down to 5,000 and about the same number of total illnesses. Known causes of food-related incidents account for approximately 14 million illnesses and 1,800 deaths, while unknown agents account for the remaining 62 million illnesses and 3,200 deaths.
Such wide disparities, in either reported or projected numbers of cases, indicate that the actual number of foodborne illnesses caused by tainted or mishandled food is imprecise and open to speculation. With this in mind, there is a need for a more proactive approach to address food safety issues in foodservice establishments.
HACCP was first developed by the food processing industry more than 40 years ago to address food safety and quality control in the processing environment. It is a proactive, seven-step approach that focuses attention on the causes and prevention of foodborne illness, and allows managers to identify and address potential safety concerns before they become a problem. It also establishes control limits to reduce the risks of common foodborne outbreaks. Essentially, the system allows operators to identify and proactively monitor a small number of specific procedures to ensure increased food safety of the finished product.
Broad industry input and personal development of customized HACCP plans is essential. The establishment of federal or state-mandated HACCP regulation for the foodservice industry may indeed mark the end of voluntary or cooperative HACCP approached between the regulator and the regulated.
Currently, some state regulatory officials work with industry to advise on and verify the effectiveness of industry-developed HACCP systems programs. Under mandatory HACCP regulations, the cooperative spirit may be the first casualty, along with the steady improvements and expanded application of HACCP at the restaurant level. In states where mandatory HACCP regulations have been implemented, HACCP has been transformed from a flexible system of self-control to a forced-fit attempt to apply a single system to all operations—marking the end of individual, self-directed HACCP programs. This is a severe blow to the HACCP concept and ultimately may signal HACCP’s demise as an industry program.
So, what form of HACCP is suitable for a diverse foodservice industry? HACCP in the foodservice industry must be based upon an honest, self-directed and informed risk assessment, followed by clearly defined actions aimed at maximizing food quality and safety. It is the self-critical look and the proactive actions that are most critical to the success of individual HACCP system.
The variety of foods and concurrent operations in most establishments remain a unique challenge to the application of HACCP. Consequently, while many operations have developed HACCP plans to cover the most hazardous components of their food-safety systems, there should be no expectation that all foods can be improved under restaurant HACCP plans.
The need for a food-specific HACCP plan should be determined by the potential risk and the ability to control that risk with the introduction of HACCP. If there is little an operation can do to eliminate or reduce the risk of an individual food or menu item, then a HACCP plan is a waste of time.
Ultimately, if HACCP is in your future as an operator, try to develop a plan that best suits your individual needs. It is important to develop a HACCP system that is based upon your self-directed, honest and informed assessment, followed by clearly defined actions aimed at maximizing food quality and safety. Do not expect to create a system that yields zero risk of illness. Operations deal with many different foods with varying levels of risk at the same time. HACCP programs may eliminate hazards in some foods, but only minimize risks or not address certain risks at all in others. As such, HACCP in operations is not a guarantee against all conceivable risk. Unidentified hazards, new hazards and hazards for which effective foodservice control measures have not yet been developed, may always exist.
Finally, there are many valuable resources to draw upon when preparing a HACCP plan. HACCP training programs are available for both foodservice managers and employees. Operators working with established HACCP systems in their facilities can provide insight into their programs and give tips for success. Additionally, the local health inspector may be able to provide useful information for the development of a plan.
Steven F. Grover is the vice president of Health and Safety Regulatory Affairs.