On April 15th, The New York Times reported that a North Carolina poultry producer had recalled more than 200 million eggs after an outbreak of salmonella. Eggs from the Hyde County farm were sold to restaurants and in supermarkets in nine states.
The Centers for Diseases Control (CDC) estimates that salmonella infections — the vast majority of them from food — cause about 1.2 million illnesses and 450 deaths every year in the United States. Healthy people who contract salmonella can usually recover without treatment after a few days of fever, diarrhea and abdominal cramps. Some cases require hospitalization and the illness can be fatal.
Two days earlier, the Times reported that three dozen people have been infected in an E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce from Yuma, Arizona. The CDC said that it had not yet identified a grower, supplier, distributor or brand common to the 35 cases of infection across 11 states, so it urged consumers to avoid any chopped, bagged romaine lettuce from the Yuma area.
According to the CDC, it takes on average about three days for a person who consumes the E. coli germ to get sick. Typical symptoms include diarrhea, oftentimes bloody, severe stomach cramps and vomiting.
The agency said it is still working to pinpoint the source of the outbreak.
These two stories alone have far-reaching implications for food safety management:
- A single food producer can have an impact across multiple states and outlets.
- Smaller items like eggs involve hundreds of millions of potential hazards (according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the US population in 1971 was roughly the same size as the recall, 207 million)
- People are becoming ill and hospitalized, and the source of the outbreak has yet to be identified. The reporting delay is two to three weeks, The Times reported.
Dependence on a global (and local) food supply, advances in scientific detection, consumer expectations, media influence, litigation and new regulations, all point to the need to invest in and build a food safety culture, before the next news cycle.
We have five building blocks in mind:
- Top-Down Leadership. Imagine the leadership agenda at that North Carolina egg farm and the Arizona lettuce provider. It’s easy to correlate food safety with stock price, profitability and brand image. Food safety should be a board agenda item, and on the CEO’s short-list of Key Performance Indicators. Food safety leadership goes beyond the COO to include the CIO, CTO and the CMO, and the CFO should ensure the investments are funded consistently.
It’s easy in this era of specialization to form silos and disconnected roles. During the processing, handling and storage of food, we need all stakeholders to act as a collective operation and function as one. Think of how airlines are committed to passenger safety, from the check-in kiosk to deplaning on at the destination. Think of the consistency you experience at every Apple store or Disney Theme Park.
Technology can assist in the development and maintenance of larger food safety cultures through the use of extensive and dynamic procedures. We have the tools at our disposal, including Food Safety Software powering safety checklists via handheld, wireless and cloud-based technologies. Such technologies are ubiquitous today in the form of apps downloaded from the internet, cell phones, reporting platforms and omnipresent communications.
- Bottom-up Behavior. Most employees are already familiar with digital devices and apps in their personal lives. Food safety technology should be a breeze, not a burden. Given what’s at stake with stock price, profitability and brand loyalty, food safety should be directly linked to job security and career advancement.
For the Records
The introduction of FSMA has brought both challenges and opportunities to the food safety industry—the requirement to document and record actions of a larger food safety plan is one of them. You are only as good as your records say you are. Once you’ve mastered these five areas, compliance becomes much simpler.