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It’s Time for a National, Coordinated Approach to Addressing Food Safety

The greatest threat to our food supply does not come from terrorists, but from a failure to provide effective oversight of the food chain.

As Food Management’s editor, I receive inquiries about all kinds of subjects. One that comes up frequently is food safety.

For example, a contract company regional manager recently called to ask if I could confirm the number of illnesses connected to food safety incidents in foodservice on an annual basis. The reader had seen various numbers in use and wanted to know which was correct so she could include it in educational materials she was distributing to employees.

Last October, a college FSD called to make me aware of warnings that were being sent to directors throughout his state as a result of the September 11th disaster. He had been cautioned to be on the lookout for cases of food safety sabotage, and he was curious if there had ever been any documented cases like this in the U.S.

(In fact there have been—the most notable one was in 1984, when members of an obscure cult living near the remote town of Dallas, Oregon, spiked salad bars at several restaurants in town with salmonella, causing illness in over 700 people. The cult was trying to incapacitate voters so its own members would dominate a local sheriff’s election.).

More recently, a director from a major U.S. hospital called to ask me if there wasn’t something more the trade press could do to raise awareness of how big an issue food safety is becoming for many FSDs. She didn’t think enough effort was being expended nationally to really address potential food safety problems and their liabilities.

One thing these (and many other) comments have in common is that they underscore our Federal and local government’s highly fragmented approach to food safety generally. The actual incidence of poisonings is measured several different ways, for example, and mostly depends on inconsistent systems of reporting from doctors, hospitals, and local and state health departments. Federal food and meat inspection programs have proven notoriously ineffective in recent years, and in many cases are still based on regulations that date back to the early 20th century. Efforts to modernize these systems have been slow to take hold and often are stymied by special interests and the courts.

Just last month, a Federal appeals court in New Orleans ruled that the Agriculture Department did not have the authority to shut down a meat processing plant that had repeatedly failed salmonella bacteria testing. While some processors argue that salmonella contamination is not serious because it is killed when meat is properly cooked, that view conveniently overlooks the serious cross-contamination threat that remains when contaminated product is stored and handled in typical kitchens.

It is no wonder FSDs like my hospital director friend are concerned that much more needs to be done.

The events of September 11th have created a new sense of urgency about our nation’s readiness to prevent and address food safety threats and have spawned a renewed interest in completely revamping the way our country regulates its food supply chain. Our industry will be seriously remiss if it does not support these efforts and instead becomes bogged down in its own many special interests.

After all, there is not a single reader of this magazine—whether operator, distributor, manufacturer, or even advertising agency—that does not have an immense amount to lose if it should find its own organization tarred by a food safety scandal, or even an association with one.

Any FM reader interested in this issue will find two recent General Accounting Office reports of tremendous interest. The first, Food Safety and Security—Fundamental Changes Needed to Ensure Safe Food (No. GAO-02-47T) makes a strong case for why our current regulatory system—which splits this responsibility up among 12 different agencies—is so inadequate.

A single example from that report illustrates why: Given a simple, packaged ham-and-cheese sandwich, in both an open face and a closed face version “wholesale manufacturers of open-face sandwiches sold in interstate commerce are inspected by FSIS daily, while wholesale manufacturers of closed-face sandwiches ... [are] generally inspected on average once every five years.”

If you want to be more knowledgeable about food safety regulatory issues, this brief but eye-opening report is must reading. Another GAO report reviews how the Center for Disease Control makes its estimates of the annual incidence of foodborne illness in the U.S. (last year the number was 76 million!)— Food Safety: CDC is Working to Address Limitations in Several of Its Foodborne Disease Surveillance Systems, (No. GAO-01-973.)

You can obtain copies from the GAO either by phone (202-512- 6000) or by visiting the GAO’s home page at

Only a broad and coordinated approach to managing food safety is an appropriate way to address this issue at the Federal, State and local levels,. Now is the time that all of us should press for the enactment of such a system.

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