Food Safety—Is It As Bad As Reported?

Marked by major food recalls, stalled regulations, a continued decline in public confidence and ever-present media coverage, 2012 won’t be remembered as a banner year for food safety.

But, what is the truth about the safety of our food? Is it as bad as reported?

Most likely not.

Since the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) in January 2011, there have been 15 food recalls in the US attributed to bacterial pathogens, three of which resulted in deaths. In total, these 15 multistate foodborne outbreaks were responsible for 1,395 illnesses and 40 deaths.

There is no question that any one death from tainted food is tragic, and any illness painful and debilitating. Measured against the total US population of 310 million people, however, this low incidence over a two-year period doesn’t match the ‘scare factor’ projected by the media and thus felt by the public.

Consider that hospital-acquired infections cause more than 90,000 deaths per year in the US, with just 36 million people receiving in-patient care each year. This is a significant contrast to the CDC’s estimate of 3,000 deaths from food-related problems annually.

The heightened US ‘scare factor’ translates to major differences in food microbiology testing practices between the US and the rest of the world. For example, growth in testing for both routine and pathogenic organisms is significantly higher in the US than in Europe. As reported in Strategic Consulting’s latest market research report (Food Micro, Seventh Edition), the growth rates in testing for pathogens such as Salmonella, pathogenic E. coli, Listeria and Campylobacter in the US are more than double those of European Union countries.

In Europe, food is of similar quality and safety as in the US. Yet, in the EU there is greater confidence in the food system and in the food that is being produced. Given that we live in an increasingly global society, how can there be such a difference in opinion about food safety in the US and the EU?

Perhaps in the US, we are over-focused on the problem. With the increasing effectiveness of CDC’s PulseNet in identifying food safety problems and the media’s desire to pounce, the public is being bombarded with stories of unsafe food. The speed and quantity of reporting is weakening the public’s confidence in our food supply. Overly so, I believe.

Broader and more frequent reporting in the US has raised the ‘scare factor’ exponentially.

The EU has an excellent counterpart to PulseNet, which tracks food quality issues for its 27-member countries. In fact, EU food recalls are identified at about the same rate as in the US. What is markedly different, however, is the media coverage. In the EU, recalls are generally reported only in the countries impacted by the recall. Given this, the public in France, for example, may not learn about a food recall in Germany or in the UK.

In contrast, in the US the public is informed of food safety problems for each and every recall. Broader and more frequent reporting in the US has raised the ‘scare factor’ exponentially. This difference in public perception of food safety is a driver for additional testing at US food plants, conducted both in a proactive effort to avoid recalls or as a result of increased regulations designed to improve food safety.

One indication of this increased pressure is the attitude toward expected levels of food micro testing at food plants. As the information foundation for Strategic Consulting’s Food Micro—7 report, hundreds of interviews were conducted of food plant QA/QC managers. Based on this primary research, it is clear that food safety pressures in the US are driving more testing. When asked, 80% of the QA/QC managers in the US felt that testing would be increasing over the next few years. In the EU, only 37% of the QA/QC managers felt that testing would be increasing while 60% felt that testing would remain stable.

So, will 2013 be a ‘good year’ for food safety? I believe yes. I believe our food in the US is generally safe now, having improved significantly on all levels since the Jack-in-the Box incident in 1993. I do know we can continue to make improvements at our food factories and that such efforts are underway. Increases in microbiology testing are only one such aspect. I also know that there will be continued regulatory improvements, both new regs as well as continued implementation of existing regs.

I also believe that the media coverage and the public’s concerns about food safety will evolve into a broader discussion regarding the emerging food movement. This and other topics I will discuss in subsequent blogs.

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