Next Steps in Food Safety Management
Foodborne illness in the United States is a major and complex problem that is likely to become a greater problem as we become a more global society. To adequately address this complex problem, we need to develop and implement a well conceived strategic approach that quickly and accurately identifies hazards, ranks the hazards by level of importance, and identifies approaches for microbial control that have the greatest impact on reducing hazards, including strategies to address emerging hazards that were previously unrecognized.
Scientific research has resulted in significant success in improving food safety, but the current science underpinning the safety of our food supply is not sufficient to protect us from all the emerging issues associated with the complexity of the food supply. As new issues emerge, some will be best addressed through the application of control technologies during food production and processing, but others may be best addressed at the consumer level through modification of exposure or susceptibility.
Food safety policies should be developed as part of national initiatives, with input from all stakeholders. In addition, international coordination of food safety efforts should be encouraged. Globalization of the food supply has contributed to changing patterns of food consumption and foodborne illness, and global food trade has the potential to introduce pathogens to new geographic areas.
To achieve the maximum benefits, our food safety efforts and policies must be carefully prioritized, both in terms of research and in application of controls. As scientific advances provide a better picture of pathogenicity, we must decide whether to focus our efforts on those pathogens that cause many cases of minor illness or instead focus on those pathogens with the greatest severity, despite the relatively low number of cases. In the move toward making decisions based on risk, our food safety policies need to weigh these issues, and communicate information about risk to all stakeholders, especially the public.
The body of scientific knowledge must be further developed, with our research efforts carefully prioritized to yield the greatest benefit. Food safety and regulatory policies must be based on science and must be applied in a flexible manner to incorporate new information as it becomes available and to implement new technologies quickly. The food industry, regulatory agencies and allied professionals should develop partnerships to improve food safety management.
On the Horizon
Several issues are likely to come to the forefront in the next decade.
Globalization of the Food Supply. The amount of imported food is increasing substantially, and this trend is likely to continue. Consistent, widespread application of food safety systems, including Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points systems and good agricultural practices, must be encouraged for international trade.
Alternative Processing Technologies and Novel Foods. Scientists continue to be challenged to adequately address all the parameters associated with the introduction of a novel food or alternative processing technology. Once developed, new technologies must be appropriately used and regulated to ensure their proper application and the product’s safety.
Increases in Organic Foods. The use of manure as a fertilizer for organic crops is a significant concern. Methods are needed to reduce the presence of pathogens in manure and to effectively eliminate them before they contaminate the environment and food.
Changes in Food Consumption. People’s changing dietary patterns affect their risk of foodborne illness. Our control and prevention methods will need to be adapted to these changing dynamics.
At-Risk Subpopulations. It is likely that the number of persons at higher risk for foodborne disease will continue to increase with time. The population of the United States is aging. In addition, there are an increasing number of transplant recipients, people undergoing treatment for cancer, people with AIDS, and others with compromised immune system function.
Pathogen Evolution. Microbial evolution has always happened and will continue to occur. Improved surveillance and new genomic technologies offer the potential to identify new potential foodborne pathogens before they cause significant illness. Another hope for the future is a better understanding of how human actions affect foodborne pathogens.
Consumer Understanding. Education and risk communication will be necessary to share with consumers our growing knowledge of food safety risks and to encourage behavior modification, where needed.
Integrated Food Safety System. A farmto- table food safety system must involve many interested parties working together toward a common goal. The challenge is to build a system that applies science in a predictable, consistent, and transparent manner to enable harmonization within and between countries.
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.