Without the technology to test at multiple points along the food chain, even significant increases in end product testing won’t eliminate food recalls or restore consumer confidence in food producers.
As the number of illnesses and deaths from listeria-tainted cantaloupes grows, the safety of the U.S. food supply is again in the spotlight. So too, are the roles and responsibilities of government, food producers, food retailers and restaurants, and ultimately consumers themselves, in ensuring that food is healthy and safe.
Given the increased attention—and food recalls—consumers’ fears are growing. The 2011 Consumer Food and Product Insights Survey produced by Deloitte says that 73% of respondents are more concerned now than five years ago about the food they eat—and that number is up from 65% just last year.
Judging by the amount of food safety testing, the U.S. food industry is paying attention. Strategic Consulting (SCI) has been tracking changes to microbiology testing practices in the U.S. food industry for more than 15 years. Our latest market report, Food Micro—5, shows an increase in microbiology testing in the U.S. food industry of 14.4% since 2008. In 2010, 213.2 million microbiology tests were collected in U.S. food plants with more than 25 employees. Even more important, during the same two-year period, testing for specific pathogens like Listeria and Salmonella increased by more than 30%.
According to a report from CDC’s FoodNet, which monitors infections caused by key food pathogens, some progress is being made in reducing foodborne outbreaks. As a group, infections caused by six critical pathogens were 23% lower in 2010, including a 27% decrease in Campylobacter infections, 38% decrease in Listeria, and 44% decrease in E. coli O157. The rate of Salmonella infection, however, has not declined in 15 years.
Salmonella is the pathogen most tested for across all food products in the US including meat and poultry, fruits and vegetables, dairy, and processed foods. What’s interesting in light of the most recent outbreak is that Listeria is the second most tested pathogen across all food products, and the most tested for pathogen by U.S. fruit and vegetable producers. Food Micro—5 found that more than 85% of the U.S. fruit and vegetable producers surveyed tested for Listeria.
Listeria is the second most tested pathogen across all food products, and the most tested for pathogen by U.S. fruit and vegetable producers.
“Lessons of the Listeria Outbreak,” a New York Times editorial published online on September 30th, suggests that “For its own good, the food industry needs to increase its cleansing and monitoring efforts. Big grocery chains and box stores ought to demand that their suppliers test their fruits and vegetables for pathogens before shipping them.” Clearly, constant efforts and diligence are required. Just as clear, however, is that increased end product testing alone will not solve this multifaceted problem. Every part of the food chain must control and test its raw materials, processing environment and end product before shipping, and that requires better tools and processes than are currently available.
Take the increasingly global nature of the food supply. According to an in-depth report on food safety by Carnegie-Knight News21.com, FDA inspectors physically examined 2.06% of food-related imports in 2010. This year, the agency expects to examine just over 1.5% of all food imports, and even less than that in 2012.
Ultimately, increased testing alone will not directly improve food safety because the time-to-results of current test methods makes proactive microbiology testing very difficult. Current technology requires one to three days to get a test result, depending on the pathogen. Without tests capable of producing point-of-sample, immediate results, it is impractical to test at the point of import or the farm, and as the food is received or being processed at the factory. As a result, food producers are reliant on end product testing alone. Continual recalls demonstrate that this is an insufficient and ineffective approach.
You can’t test in quality after the product has been produced. Better and faster microbiological detection tools will enable food producers to be proactive and to practice the true intentions of HACCP: to control the raw materials and control the factory so that the end product will be under control. So while more testing is necessary, what’s most important is better testing tools. Without the technology to efficiently and effectively test at multiple points along the food chain, even significant increases in end product testing won’t eliminate food recalls or restore consumer confidence in food producers.