How Much Confidence Do You Have In The U.S. Food Supply?

April 30, 2015

Food safety outbreaks should remind food companies how important food safety issues are in their shoppers' minds and to reinforce their transparencies on every aspect of their operation.

Originally published in Forbes.

Ice cream, hummus, lasagna, pizza, cheese, pine nuts, chicken, frozen shrimp, frozen smoothie kits, peas, corn, and broccoli have all made headlines and found themselves being taken off supermarket shelves. Food safety is once again top of mind as we traverse the supermarket aisles as news reports urge caution as a seemingly never-ending list of various bacteria or diseases are discovered in our foods.

Food safety is a serious business. The Centers for Disease Control reports that “each year, one in six Americans get sick from, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die of food borne illness.” That is over 50 million people who took a bite, and then found out they ingested Campylobacter, E. coli, ListeriaSalmonellaVibrio, Norovirus or Toxoplasma in their bellies.

President Obama signed the Food & Drug Administration Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) into law in January 2011. It promised a sweeping change; that instead of just responding to food safety outbreaks – the agency would focus on preventing them. So what happened since?

Last week, in Washington DC, the FSMA held public meetings to discuss “putting in place the prevention and risk-based safety standards at the core of FSMA.” On its blog, FDAVoice, video snippets of the participants underscored how important it is to work together, the typical Washington-speak. David Gombas, Senior VP of Food Safety & Technology of the United Fresh Produce Association said it best, “The herculean task that FDA still faces will be to implement that culture change (i.e., moving to prevention) throughout their ranks. The real test will come during the enforcement period when FDA starts knocking on that door.”

According to the USDA, there are approximately 30,000 food and beverage processing facilities in the US, based on data from the 2007 US Census Core Business Statistics. There have been numerous reports of overworked inspectors, and the problems with the Public Health Information System (PHIS)  both of which many point to as adding to the food safety prevention problem.

As Americans, we are very forgiving. We forgive politicians for their personal indiscretions and misuse of funds, we forgive car companies for their mechanical errors, we forgive mobile phones for poor reception, we forgive Wall Street for draining our pensions, and we even forgive our celebrities for hurting or killing their friends.

Are the rules different when it comes to tainted foods? In 1971, Bon Vivant soup recalled over 1,000,000 cans of soup after a man died after consuming a can of its vichyssoise soup that contained botulism; lack of public confidence forced the company into bankruptcy and a corporate name change. 2006 brought us three deaths and at least 276 illnesses from bagged spinach that had been contaminated with E. coli; industry insiders report that bagged spinach sales have yet to recover the level of its market share before the recall. Jensen Farms, now defunct, made headlines with their distribution of cantaloupes across 28 states contaminated with Listeria that killed 30 and had a confirmed total of 147 cases.

All three of these cases have a similar thread. According to the FDA, the soup company had questionable processing practices. The spinach was grown on land formerly used as a cattle ranch. The cantaloupe outbreak, as reported by the FDA, emanated from a washer that was designed to wash potatoes (not melons) as well as other less than ideal unsanitary touch points.

In most, if not all of the current food safety recalls, it appears that there are not any misdoings or malicious processing operations. The reality is that we will always have strains of bacteria infecting our foods – no matter how stringent the food safety practices that are in place. A leaky pipe, someone’s loose hair, or an insect that makes its way into the facility.

What matters most is how the company deals with the problem. Johnson & Johnson’s handling of the 1982 Tylenol tampering (which resulted in seven deaths) became THE case study and showed that a brand could earn back and build consumer confidence through honesty, transparency and disclosure.

So far, the largest of the current recalls is that of Blue Bell ice cream, and they seem to be doing everything right. A family owned company that has thrived for over 108 years. Paul Kruse, a family member and CEO posted a YouTube video within hours to say what happened and apologize to their customers. Removing all their products, not just their cookie dough ice cream that was found to contain Listeria, from every retail and food service outlet across 23 states is an expensive move; but shows shoppers that Blue Bell is committed to protecting their health. What happens next will determine the fate of the brand. Finding the source of the contamination could take weeks or months; how and when they disclose the details of what happens will be the key to their future.

One thing is for sure; these food safety outbreaks should remind food companies how important food safety issues are in their shoppers' minds and to reinforce their transparencies on every aspect of their operation. The goal should be to obtain a strong enough relationship to their brand that will secure forgiveness on a wrong before it happens.