Food safety can never be perfect, but specific goals would help, says report

Feb 26, 2002 (CIDRAP News) – There is no complete fix for the problem of foodborne illness, but a comprehensive, farm-to-table approach with specific targets for limiting pathogenic contamination would improve food safety, according to a new report by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT).

"Given the characteristics of some foods, available technologies, and our desire for year-round availability of a diverse array of foods, it is unlikely that the marketplace can be made free from the presence of pathogenic microorganisms at all times," states the report, titled Emerging Microbiological Food Safety Issues: Implications for Control in the 21st Century.

The report emphasizes that improvements in food safety will depend largely on enhanced surveillance of foodborne diseases and on proper food-handling practices by all parties, including producers, processors, sellers, and preparers. The lengthy document was released at the IFT's International Food Safety and Quality Conference and Expo last week in Atlanta. The report was authored by a 21-member panel of experts from academia, government, and industry, chaired by Morris Potter, DVM, lead epidemiologist in the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. The IFT is a not-for-profit scientific society with 28,000 members.

Although canning, pasteurization, and refrigeraton have yielded great gains in food safety, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 76 million cases of foodborne illness occur each year, resulting in 5,000 deaths, the report notes. More than 200 known diseases are caused by foodborne pathogens.

"The current science underpinning the safety of our food supply is not sufficient to protect us from all the emerging issues associated with the complexity of the food supply," states the concluding chapter of the report. Better surveillance of foodborne disease is necessary to improve risk assessment.  In particular, little is known about the relationship between the amount of foodborne pathogens ingested and the resulting risk and severity of illness, the report says. Also, scientists are just beginning to understand the factors that make certain microbial strains pathogenic while others are not. The authors predict that experts eventually will be able to classify pathogens on the basis of specific virulence factors, which will improve the ability to evaluate food safety. Also needed are better methods for analyzing pathogen behavior in the food-production environment.

One obstacle to providing a "zero-risk" food supply is Listeria monocytogenes, which is constantly reintroduced into foods during processing and grows at refrigerator temperatures, the IFT says. "The large-scale production of some ready-to-eat foods consistently free of Listeria monocytogenes appears practically impossible." The authors suggest that a true farm-to-table food safety system would not require the destruction of Listeria-contaminated foods that are unlikely to cause illness in the general population.

The report also says that current technologies are not likely to satisfy the demand for fruits and vegetables that are free of harmful microorganisms. Likewise, although much progress has been made in reducing contamination of animal carcasses during slaughter, "the occasional presence of pathogens on meat and poultry carcasses is largely unavoidable."

Irradiation is a valuable tool for enhancing food safety but is not a universal solution, the authors assert. "For some foods, irradiation results in food with unacceptable sensory characteristics . . . . Irradiation is a tool with broad applicability, but it is not a comprehensive solution for all infectious foodborne hazards in all foods," states the chapter "Next Steps in Food Safety Management."

The IFT recommends the establishment of "Food Safety Objectives (FSOs)," defined as maximum contamination levels at which food would still be safe to eat. "FSOs would enable food manufacturers to design processes that provide the appropriate level of control and that could be monitored to verify effectiveness," the report states. The standards should be set by regulatory agencies in collaboration with all interested groups, including public health officials, industry, and consumers.

"The FSO approach can be used to integrate risk assessment and current hazards management practices into a framework that achieves public health goals in a science-based, flexible manner," the authors say. They assert that the hazard analysis and critical control point (HACCP) approach to food safety, while science-based, may not be applicable in all circumstances. For example, HACCP principles can't always be followed in agriculture, where a better approach for some commodities may be to use well-defined "good agricultural practices."

To keep fresh produce safe, the emphasis should be on preventing contamination in the first place, the report states. Growing conditions are important, and the use of manure as fertilizer is a special concern. "Methods are needed to reduce the presence of pathogens in manure and to effectively eliminate them before they contaminate the environment and food," the authors assert.

At the end of the food-handling chain, cooks and consumers need to take their share of responsibility for keeping food safe, the report says. It urges public health personnel to inform consumers about how to reduce their risks.

The authors also call for the free exchange of food safety data to help fill knowledge gaps. "Procedures must be implemented to obtain data from food manufacturers in 'penalty-free' environments so the data can be properly evaluated by public officials and the results made available to all interested parties. . . . Flexibility to respond to new information and new hazards will require unfettered data sharing."

The IFT report does not specifically discuss bioterrorist threats to the food supply because work on the report began long before last fall's terrorist attacks, the authors note. However, they say, much of the report is relevant to efforts to prevent or respond to bioterrorist attacks on the food system.

See also:

Institute of Food Technologists Web page with links to full report and individual chapters

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