Scrutiny inconsistent in food safety

Source of Article:  http://www.readingeagle.com/article.aspx?id=129961



Ask any food safety expert how to prevent food-borne illnesses, and the answer almost always includes a method invented in Minnesota to keep astronauts from getting sick in space.

The idea: Food makers must identify the riskiest steps in processing each kind of food and systematically attack the pathogens at those critical junctures.

Food scientists say the deadly salmonella outbreak linked to the Peanut Corp. of America shows why such preventive measures should be mandatory across the food industry.

Under the government's fragmented regulation of food safety, some industries, such as meat and seafood, are required to have science-based programs to keep harmful germs out. For most other food processors, such programs are voluntary.

Makers of fresh juice and canned vegetables have to follow preventive control efforts, but not those that package fresh lettuce and spinach. Almond processors must comply with salmonella-prevention requirements imposed in 2007. The peanut industry doesn't.

The PCA processing plant in Blakely, Ga., linked to the salmonella outbreak wasn't required to have a hazard-control program and "to our knowledge, did not have one," Arty Schronce, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Agriculture, said in an e-mail.

It's not known how many plants don't bother with food-safety protocols developed nearly 50 years ago at Pillsbury. Large food makers have widely embraced the practice, said Francisco Diez, an associate professor of food safety microbiology at the University of Minnesota.

For others, "the government has relied on self-policing by the industry, but the case of PCA shows that self-policing is not sufficient," Diez said.

Even food industry groups say that Congress should require every manufacturer to have a food safety plan.

"What we want is to make sure that, first of all, a company is required to actually look at what they are doing, identify where the hazards are and propose doing something about it," said Robert Brackett, chief science and regulatory officer for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, one of 10 industry groups urging changes in federal law.

That might happen in the wake of the latest salmonella outbreak, which sickened 677 people, nine of whom died. More than 3,200 products containing peanuts have been recalled, and Peanut Corp. of America has closed plants, filed for bankruptcy and faces a criminal investigation.

A bipartisan bill in the U.S. Senate that was introduced last week would require all food processors to have prevention plans to address food-borne hazards. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, one of the bill's sponsors, said it stands a good chance of passing.

The concept of hazard-prevention dates back to 1959, when the late Howard Bauman, the longtime Pillsbury food safety director, got a call from the government.

"The idea was to make sure the astronauts don't have food poisoning," said professor Ted Labuza, a University of Minnesota food scientist who knew Bauman. "You can't have astronauts vomiting or with diarrhea."

Labuza said Bauman and other scientists realized that inspecting and testing the food wouldn't be enough. Instead, they believed food makers should identify hazardous steps during processing, and apply the best science, controls and monitoring to reduce risk. The original name of the concept - Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point system - is usually shortened to HACCP, pronounced has-sip, or called preventive control.

The Food and Drug Administration soon got interested. Minnesota food scientists trained the first federal inspectors in the method when it was mandated for botulism prevention in the canning industry in 1973. It would be nearly a quarter century before the government expanded preventive-control regulations to the meat, poultry and seafood industries.

Keeping pathogens out of food requires rigorous science, and often results in extra expense and paperwork for companies.

Methods to control food hazards vary widely, ranging from simple steps like changing how food is stored, to efforts like improving temperature sensors. Other, costly programs require redesigning equipment for a production line. For foods such as leafy vegetables, the science hasn't caught up with the risk. At least 20 outbreaks of dangerous E. coli have been traced to fresh spinach or lettuce over the past 12 years, yet there is no method to kill bacteria in raw vegetables, experts say.

For companies, complying with the rules can mean hiring consultants, trainers, even lawyers.

That's what Coastal Seafoods, a Twin Cities fresh fish processor, discovered two years ago. The FDA took the Minneapolis company to court, not because anything was found wrong with its products, but because inspectors said the company's hazard-control plan didn't comply with government standards.

Eventually the company hired a food safety expert to write a better plan. The company also installed specialized monitoring equipment, including better sensors to make minute-by-minute temperature checks during shipments.

The monitoring data, roughly 30 to 70 pages per week, has "confirmed that our quality control was good," said general manager Tim Lauer.

"The idea is great," he said. But getting a hazard-control plan approved had many bumps.

"It seemed like the goal was clear, but the way to go about and satisfy the different inspections was not as clear," he said.


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