FAQ: Application of Science to Food Safety Management

How should government policies approach food safety management?

The IFT Expert Report covers the scientific basis for microbial food safety issues and addresses policy implications only within the context of how science may be properly applied. The report recommends policies that are sufficiently flexible to rapidly accommodate and respond to new scientific information and that have clear links between public health food safety goals and performance standards. Food Safety Objectives (FSOs)— which are based on risk assessments and implemented with good manufacturing practices (GMPs) and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) systems—can be used to create such a flexible, science-based food safety management framework.

What are the significant challenges that must be overcome as we try to maximize food safety?

Although it would be great if food manufacturers could eliminate pathogens from our food, it just isn’t possible using today’s technologies. Efforts to maximize food safety must address technical feasibility, availability of intervention strategies, sensory quality, and the diversity of foods desired by consumers.

What are Food Safety Objectives?

An FSO is a statement of the maximum frequency and/or concentration of a microbiological hazard in a food at the time of consumption that provides the appropriate level of protection. FSOs are used to integrate risk assessment and current hazard management practices into a framework that can be used to achieve public health goals in a science-based, flexible manner. Although the FSO concept is relatively new and is still evolving, its acceptance is growing worldwide because it offers a practical means to convert public health goals into values or targets that can be used by regulatory agencies and industry. The FSO concept can be a useful tool for creating policies that are consistent with current science. The FSO development process should be transparent and facilitate input, both scientific and societal, from all affected parties.

How does the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point system improve food safety?

HACCP is a management tool used by food manufacturers to enhance food safety by implementing preventive measures at certain steps of a process. It also can be applied at other points in the food system. HACCP has seven principles: (1) conduct a hazard analysis, (2) determine the critical control points, (3) establish critical limits, (4) establish monitoring procedures, (5) establish corrective actions, (6) establish verification procedures, and (7) establish recordkeeping and documentation procedures. Successful HACCP implementation has not been limited to food processing. HACCP has been used worldwide to improve food safety in distribution, food service, and retail. The HACCP concept also has been used to develop tips on proper food handling and preparation procedures in the home.

The IFT Expert Report emphasizes the need for science-based food safety policies. Aren’t our current policies based on science?

History has demonstrated that science, when appropriately applied through food safety management policies, can dramatically improve food safety. The past century provides numerous examples: refrigeration of perishable foods, pasteurization of milk, and commercial canning of low acid foods. Our current food safety policies are the result of decades of efforts to address specific problems. They have not been developed in a coordinated, comprehensive manner, but they have served us well during the transition from an agrarian to an industrialized society during the past century. Our food safety policies are based on the best scientific information available at the time they were created, but our knowledge continues to improve. Changes in the pathogens, the foods available, and the available control technologies affect food safety. Food safety policies should incorporate new information as it becomes available.

How could the government determine what is an appropriate level of risk?

The government must consider all of the public’s needs, desires, and opinions when establishing public health food safety goals. An FSO helps translate the public health goal into measurable objectives during production and processing. An FSO is based on risk assessment, which clearly identifies the hazard being analyzed, assesses possible exposure to the hazard, characterizes the nature of the hazard, and characterizes the risk associated with the hazard. Key considerations during risk assessment include how much of the pathogen is required to cause illness, the severity of the illness, and the portions of the population most susceptible and most likely to be exposed to the hazard. Because the FSO must be met at the time of consumption, it must take into account the likelihood that the pathogen would multiply under typical conditions during storage and distribution.

Why doesn’t the government test all food for pathogens to keep it safe?

To determine the performance of a system, measures of the characteristics of its output are necessary. Although microbiological testing has many uses, sometimes other approaches are necessary to effectively and efficiently reach public health food safety goals. Microbiological testing of finished food products has statistical and technical limitations that must be recognized when it is used. As the amount of microbial contamination gets low, the chances of accurately identifying contaminated food plummets, especially when the contamination is not uniformly distributed throughout the food. In addition, our current testing methods are not always sufficiently sensitive to find low level contamination. As a result, negative test results do not guarantee that a food is not contaminated with pathogens. Furthermore, microbiological testing methods sometimes mis-identify harmless microorganisms as dangerous pathogens.

Does a “zero tolerance” policy for a pathogen mean it won’t be in my food? As currently implemented, a zero tolerance regulatory policy means that, when detected, the contaminated product must not be sold or must be recalled if it has already entered the distribution chain. However, the statistical limitations of microbiological testing are especially significant for a pathogen/food combination where the rate of contamination is low. Greater attention to preventing cross-contamination and undercooking may have more impact on the public’s health than further reductions in the already small numbers of pathogens occasionally present in certain foods.

How do scientists identify outbreaks of foodborne illness?

Outbreaks are detected through surveillance systems that systematically collect and analyze data about cases of foodborne illness. A network of physicians, public health laboratories and other public health officials report and investigate cases of foodborne illness. When more than one case is linked to consumption of the same food, it is considered an outbreak. New pathogen identification methods, such as genetic fingerprinting, enable scientists to distinguish between different strains of the same pathogen, making it easier to definitively link the illness to a particular food and trace that food back to its source.

Foodborne disease surveillance consists of four primary components: (1) identifying and reporting outbreaks, (2) monitoring for illness associated with specific pathogens, (3) determining risk factors for sporadic cases of infection with common foodborne pathogens, and (4) studying the population to track gastrointestinal illness, including trends in the requests for health care, food consumption, and personal prevention measures.

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.