“If you are a private label manufacturer, you really need to know who is making your product and that they are producing a safe product,” Marler cautions. He adds that liable companies within the chain of distribution may argue among themselves as to who is more liable or less liable in this case.
One of the changes that will happen as a result of all of this relates to how the FDA’s field staff will collect samples during their routine inspections. One lesson learned is that although peanut butter does not support the growth of bacteria, once bacteria gets into the product it remains stable and divides very quickly once ingested by humans. Therefore, FDA field staff will now be required to collect samples of food products, as well as samples from the environment.
“There is a whole science governing where you take environmental samples—such as from the equipment used to manufacture products and from floor drains,” explains Stephen F. Sundlof, DVM, PhD, director of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
The field is full of finger-pointers pointing to the government and to particular companies. “Government has a role, but it failed,” notes Doug Powell, PhD, associate professor of food safety at Kansas State University. “But government failure is minor compared to corporate failure. Everyone is focusing on government, but it is really up to the food industry to produce a safe product. Even if you had inspectors present 24/7, if people want to break the law, they will do so. In this case, criminal charges are being pursued, which very rarely happens.”
COMMITTED TO FOOD SAFETY
The industry leaders we spoke with agree that achieving food safety must be approached through responsible and honorable partnerships among the participants of the food chain—from raw goods through finished products.
“There has to be an environment of partnership because if that is lacking, little else will fix this,” says Jim Munyon, president of Manhattan, KS-based AIB International. “Third-party audits are a component within the partnership and they have to work in concert with [food-chain participants’] proper systems and procedures, a culture of continued improvement and continual employee training. There needs to be full disclosure and integrity throughout this partnership.”
Munyon notes this situation is a rarity and that the food and beverage industry has always been committed to food safety. “It certainly does not work in any company’s interest to have a failure like this. Everyone in the food industry is both saddened and appalled by this situation and we are all doing internal reviews on continued improvement. Food safety requires commitment to a safe food supply; this commitment was clearly lacking here.”
Because food passes through many steps, changing hands from one factory to another, the potential exists for something to go wrong throughout the links if one participant along the chain acts irresponsibly. “Everyone must accept responsibility for their piece of the food chain,” FMI’s Hollingsworth says. “When something goes wrong, it has the potential to hurt many. So we have to learn from instances like this and we must do whatever it takes to produce safe food.”
Having as many checks and balances as possible within the food chain helps assure food is produced safely, continues Hollingsworth.
“FMI is a strong supporter of third-party certification, which is a type of audit,” she says. In fact, FMI owns one of these programs, called Safe Quality Food (SQF), which involves an in-depth understanding of a company and how it manages its day-to-day business from a safety perspective.
“We help companies recognize where they might have weaknesses and we also identify those companies doing an outstanding job. Third-party certification offers one more set of eyes and ears making sure that everything that can be done in a prevention program is in place and working,” says Hollingsworth. “Third-party certifications are an excellent tool, but we still want government inspections.”
Clearly, it is the responsibility of the food industry to produce safe products, says FDA’s Sundlof. “Nothing will improve things more than industry stepping up and taking a stronger role in making sure they know their supply chain and knowing they have good systems in place that will prevent the intrusion of contaminants into the food they produce.”