From Ed Thompson’s point of view, there have been significant improvements in recent years when it comes to food safety in the U.S. As vice president of quality assurance for Avendra, a leading North American procurement services provider for the hospitality industry, Thompson is unquestionably qualified to make that assessment.
New rules and regulations are helping, too. “The Food Safety Modernization Act is really impacting the food supply chain,” says Thompson. And while legislation and the consequences associated with non-compliance are piquing companies’ attention, so are risks related to an outbreak of foodborne illness or other events that can damage a brand.
“The industry realizes this now and they understand that while it may require and upfront investment to improve food safety and mitigate risk exposure, it pays off,” he says.
Produce suppliers, in particular, have made great strides in food safety over the past few years, says Thompson, ranging from research to traceability. “In the research area alone so much has been done at the field level, starting with the seed, fertilizer and soil. In addition, researchers have looked at how the produce in the field is handled, packed, and even equipment design has been studied.”
Earlier this year, the FDA confirmed 552 food recalls were issued during the last quarter of 2012, affecting 18.4 million products and amounting to the highest number of recalls in two years. On the surface, these statistics hardly seem encouraging, but Thompson explains that “we’re able to detect harmful bacteria at much more minute levels than we used to. In fact, there was a time when E. coli wasn’t even considered an adulterant.”
Not surprisingly, some companies wait until mandatory legislation is in effect or a potentially damaging incident occurs before implementing more rigorous food safety programs. Fortunately, there are other companies that choose to take a leadership role.
“These companies take it upon themselves to look at the entire supply chain, from the very first ingredient all the way through the supply chain, including the transportation and distribution of the finished product that finally reaches the end consumer,” explains Thompson. “They understand that they have ownership in the process and whatever happens, who was responsible or where it occurred, it ultimately affects the brand.”
In recent years, other industries have focused upstream and increased control over their supply chains to better manage various suppliers, yet this same discipline has often been lacking in the food sector. To be fair, the nature of modern food supply chains—multiple suppliers [sometimes overseas] of raw ingredients, the labor-intensive nature of picking, packing and processing food, lack of uniform regulations, the many touch points along the supply chain—make supply chain management more difficult. Nonetheless, companies who take steps to raise awareness in their organizations; educate their employees, vendors and partners; and conduct regular audits are positively changing the industry.
At Avendra, one of the most popular services is the Meet the Truck audit, says Thompson, which he likens to a “mystery shopper in the consumer world.” The audit is pre-arranged with Avendra’s customer (a hotel, for example). The hotel’s suppliers, meanwhile, are not notified of the audit, but are met and subsequently audited by the Avendra quality assurance professional, who rates them on various delivery criteria, including adherence to specifications, completeness of orders, condition of delivery equipment, product integrity and overall performance.
Technology advancements are also changing the marketplace, says Steve Dollase, executive vice president at Inmar.
“One exciting innovation is the increased use of authentication molecules, 2D barcodes and other similar technology,” he explains. “We work with manufacturers to selectively leverage these technologies. Doing so enables Inmar’s supply chain field analysts to capture lot/date codes throughout the supply chain and also identify counterfeit product. Additionally, when we process products returned for reasons such as damage, expiration, recall or withdrawal, lot codes help establish the originator of the product and authentication molecules can be checked to identify counterfeits.”
What’s not working
When asked about the biggest obstacle for food suppliers when it comes to safety, Avendra’s Thompson is quick to respond, “It’s clearly a lack of education.” Whether it’s at the farm level, the manufacturing level or at the consumer level, Thompson says both the industry and consumers are still not up to speed on several fronts.
As it turns out, lack of education also plays a part in what’s undoubtedly a huge problem when it comes to food safety—poor hand hygiene.
Tony Kramer, an executive with Ecolab, stated in a Webinar last year that hand hygiene is a leading contributor to foodborne illness. Specifically, bare hand contact is the number two contributing factor to foodborne illness outbreaks. [The leading contributor to foodborne outbreaks is an infected worker, while other, less frequent incidents occur because of inadequate cleaning, gloved hand contact, and raw ingredient contamination from an animal or the environment.]
Furthermore, Kramer cited statistics by the FDA that show that proper hand washing in restaurants was found to be out of compliance 73 percent of the time. While these findings are troubling, Kramer offered that simple training along with using the right products could go a long way in addressing this problem.
Avendra’s Thompson couldn’t agree more. “There are so many things that amount to good, basic practices, like hand washing and using gloves when you should use gloves, hairnets, and other things that are certainly not expensive. And when it comes to testing, it’s not necessary to have your own lab because it’s easy to put a sample in an express pouch and send it off to a facility for testing. There are also rapid tests on the market that work very well.”
In fact, new products aimed at improving food safety, which are also easy to use and affordable, are being introduced with greater frequency.
At this month’s International Restaurant and Foodservice Show in New York City, Elektron Technology debuted its Checkit wireless solution to monitor and control food safety and automate HACCP (Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points) processes. According to the company, “The new generation system constantly monitors temperature, humidity, door status and hygiene task completion in food storage and preparation areas with its range of intelligent wireless sensors and handheld devices.”