Application of Science to Food Safety Management
It is difficult to conceive of a food safety system that responds effectively and efficiently to emerging microbiological food safety concerns that does not permit rapid changes in approach based on advances in science. Flexibility to respond to new information and hazards will require unfettered data sharing. In addition, such a system cannot rely on the use of prescribed microbial control processes but instead must emphasize validation and verification of the control methods used.
Risk assessment is becoming a foundation for selecting food safety management options. Risk assessment is an iterative process, and assessments must be updated as additional information becomes available. Although essential, scientific data are a very substantial limiting factor in the application of risk assessment. Appropriate and aggressive data collection throughout the food production and processing system is essential for valid risk assessments and the resulting food safety improvements. Procedures must be implemented to obtain data from food manufacturers in “penalty-free” environments so the data can be properly evaluated by public officials and the results made available to all interested parties.
Regulatory agencies should work with other public health officials and interested parties, including industry and consumers, to establish Food Safety Objectives (FSOs). FSOs offer a means to convert public health goals into values or targets that can be used by regulatory agencies and food manufacturers. FSOs, which can be applied throughout the food chain, specify the maximum level of hazard that would be appropriate at the time a food is consumed. FSOs would enable food manufacturers to design processes that provide the appropriate level of control and that could be monitored to verify effectiveness.
The FSO approach can be used to integrate risk assessment and current hazard management practices into a framework that achieves public health goals in a science-based, flexible manner. FSOs help translate the outcome of risk assessment into something that can be used with Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) systems. The FSO approach will be successful when directly intertwined with a food processor’s good manufacturing practices (GMPs) and HACCP systems.
Hazard Control and Monitoring
HACCP is a science-based food safety management approach that has been widely adopted and effectively applied to improve food safety. However, HACCP may not be appropriate for all circumstances. It is not possible to have a valid HACCP plan when a scientific analysis does not identify any point that meets the critical control point criteria. HACCP implementation must remain flexible to incorporate scientific knowledge and data in a product- and process-specific manner that best meets FSOs.
The application of HACCP to primary production is particularly limited, because all the HACCP principles generally cannot be achieved. Well-defined, science- based good agricultural practices should be further developed for specific commodities. Additional research will be necessary to better understand the microbial ecology in these agricultural environments and to formulate science-based recommendations for pathogen control. Routine microbiological testing is useful for some purposes but not for others. It can focus on pathogens of interest or on nonpathogenic microorganisms whose presence indicates conditions favorable to the presence of pathogens. Testing is useful for surveillance and HACCP verification purposes. It also is used for validating and revalidating control procedures.
Microbiological testing of finished product, however, can be misleading, because negative results do not ensure safety. Testing has statistical limitations based on the amount of product sampled, the percentage of product that is contaminated, and the uniformity of the distribution of contamination throughout the food. As the amount of contamination in the food decreases, the food safety emphasis should focus on further controlling processing conditions through the application of science-based HACCP systems.
Foodborne Illness Surveillance
Human foodborne disease surveillance will continue to be very important to: (1) identify outbreaks of foodborne disease so they can be controlled and prevented; (2) determine the causes of foodborne disease; (3) improve control strategies; and (4) monitor trends in occurrence of foodborne disease. Comprehensive, coordinated surveillance activities must be expanded to include animal health and the production and processing environments. Further integrating animal and environmental surveillance systems into established human surveillance systems will increase our understanding of the epidemiology and sources of foodborne disease.
Recognizing that food safety is a fundamental and continuing issue, the Institute of Food Technologists commissioned an expert panel to review the available scientific literature related to emerging microbiological food safety issues. The panel’s report is divided into seven sections: Introduction, Pathogenicity, Human Hosts, Microbial Ecology, Application of Science to Food Safety Management, Next Steps, and Conclusions. Copies of the report are available at www.ift.org. Founded in 1939, IFT is a 28,000 member nonprofit scientific society for food science and technology.