FAQ: Next Steps

What could we do to improve our food safety policies?

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 new 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 methods used to assure food safety.

Scientific data are a very substantial limiting factor in enhancing food safety. Further research will continue to help resolve complex problems and to provide information to improve the delivery of safe foods. 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.

The complex interrelationship of the pathogen, host, and microbial ecology ensures a role for everyone in food safety management—industry, regulatory agencies, public health officials, and consumers. A flexible, science-based approach that relies on all parties to fulfill their role is our best weapon against emerging microbiological food safety issues.

How can we get the maximum benefit for the resources we invest in food safety?

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 may need to decide whether to concentrate more on those pathogens that cause many cases of minor illness or instead focus on those pathogens with the greatest severity, despite the relatively few number of cases. In the move toward making decisions based on risk, our food safety policies need to weigh these issues, and communicate about risk with all stakeholders, including the public.

When adequate data becomes available for quantitative risk assessment, it will be possible to rank hazards based on quantitative hazard analysis—to identify, in order of importance, those pathogens of principal concern to public health—to provide a scientifically based approach for resource allocation. Criteria for such hazard ranking will need to be established. Examples of suitable criteria include: incidence and severity of illnesses, number and predisposing conditions of high-risk populations, principal risk factors associated with illness, and prevalence and virulence of the pathogen.

Within a strategic approach, intervention strategies identify points at which control measures will have the greatest influence on providing safe foods. To identify and rank these points, microbial risk assessments are conducted. The risk assessments involve systematically collecting and analyzing exposure and dose-response data. Case-control studies and other epidemiologic research approaches are helpful for identifying risk factors in sporadic infections and outbreaks.

To maximize the results of our control efforts, we should look for sources of contamination—water, manure, food handling and preparation—that are common to many pathogens and many foods. Controls that address these broad issues will have significant impact and will efficiently use our food safety management resources.

How well do consumers understand food safety?

Of course, food safety knowledge varies. Many consumers are well versed in food safety issues and diligently practice proper food handling and preparations. Unfortunately, knowledge gaps exist. Some consumers are well informed about some issues, but not about other issues.

For the last 30 years, the dominant food safety message has been that the United States has the world’s safest food supply, and we believe this to be the case. As a result, some consumers believe that there is in place an extensive system of controls applied throughout the food production and distribution system, guaranteed ultimately by government oversight, and that this

system protects them against well-recognized and emerging foodborne disease. One of the consequences of this confidence is that food safety problems may be seen only as defects of the system to be fixed by strengthening the system of controls and government action, rather than also as problems with a strong component of consumer-based risk reduction or risk avoidance.

Studies indicate that 80% of consumers think food safety problems are mainly due to failures in food processing, food distribution and food preparation in restaurants; in other words, consumers believe the failures are occurring in the most regulated parts of the food safety system where they have little direct responsibility. Relatively few consumers perceive food safety problems due to actions in the home—the final stage of the food safety system—or on farms—the beginning of the system. To achieve a truly farm-to-table approach to maximizing food safety, it is important to consider potential contributions from all segments of the food chain.

It is important to remember, that when it comes to food safety, everyone is a consumer. Scientists, food manufacturers and public health officials are also consumers and share the desire for safe, nutritious, and abundant foods.

Has consumer food safety improved?

Research indicates that people consider themselves fairly knowledgeable about food safety guidelines, and for the most part they are. However, as in other areas of health and safety, knowledge and awareness does not always translate into behavioral changes. Between 1988 and 1993, indicators of concern about food increased significantly, suggesting an emerging public awareness and interest in food safety problems. At the same time, data suggest that unsafe food consumption and preparation behavior actually increased.

If people do not recognize and accept their role in food safety problems, behavior change is unlikely. One way to break through public misconceptions is to describe the magnitude of food safety problems and challenge people’s understanding of themselves as experts.

What are the food safety issues that will emerge in the next few years?

Globalization of the food supply has the potential to introduce pathogens from different geographic regions. In addition, growing conditions and food safety management practices may be different, and pose different risks, than for foods produced in the United States. The global trade in food stuffs is only one force in people’s changing dietary patterns.

The demographics of the U.S. population are shifting, meaning the number of persons at higher risk for foodborne disease will continue to increase with time. Our control and prevention methods will need to be adapted as dietary patterns and population demographics change.

Alternative processing technologies and novel food products have the potential for both positive and negative effects on microbiological food safety. A thorough analysis must consider the possible consequences, intended and unintended, within the food system.

The use of manure as a fertilizer for 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.

The microbiological safety of organic foods is a concern, and these foods represent a growing share of the market. Organic farming practices generally prohibit the use of some microbial controls, such as certain chemical sanitizers and irradiation, that could be used to reduce the risk of foodborne illness.

Microbial evolution has always happened and will always happen. New pathogens may emerge, and existing pathogens may become more virulent or may be found in different foods.

Because certain elements of pathogen evolution are inherently unpredictable, it is impossible to predict, with absolute accuracy, the emerging microbiological food safety issues of the future. However, our knowledge of the current issues and the complex factors that drive changes in microbiological food safety do provide us with a good sense of the trends.

How can we be prepared for emerging pathogens?

Foodborne illness has no easy solutions. However, major strides can be made by developing and implementing a wellconceived strategic approach that prioritizes the hazards and defines the strategies that will most effectively reduce hazards. This approach must include a strategy to address emerging hazards. This strategic approach should be a national initiative that includes state, local, and international involvement.

The importance of an expanded surveillance system that covers animal health and the environment cannot be overstated. The additional information from an expanded and coordinated surveillance system would enable a broader vision of the flow of pathogens and potential pathogens throughout the food chain, and it would fill some important data gaps in risk assessment. Coupling epidemiology with the new genetic tools, potential foodborne pathogens may be detected before they cause confirmed human illness. While it may be politically or economically impractical to respond vigorously to a likely pathogen before cases are identified and linked to the food/pathogen combination, prior knowledge of the potential pathogen will decrease response time and enable a more appropriate first response.

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.