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A food scientist uses a microscope to study the contents of meat, fruits, and vegetables

In 1993, four children died and hundreds more were hospitalized after eating hamburgers contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 at several Jack in the Box fast-food restaurants. In 2009, the Georgia-based Peanut Corporation of America was shut down after a widespread
Salmonella outbreak linked to its products left nine dead and hundreds more hospitalized. Considered the largest and deadliest foodborne illness outbreaks of the past 30 years, these milestone events indelibly shaped the U.S. food safety landscape. Both are revisited in the recent top-watched Netflix documentary “Poisoned: The Dirty Truth About Your Food,” which has catapulted food safety back into the public eye and generated lively discussion among the science of food community.

Whatever one’s take on the film, a Centers for Disease Control statistic it points to in its opening moments should concern us all: 48 million people—that’s one in six—are sickened by foodborne diseases each year in the United States. And of those who get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die. “These numbers remind us that our jobs are never done when it comes to food safety,” says IFT’s senior food safety and traceability scientist Sara Bratager. “It’s a constant effort and a global problem. Everyone in the food system plays an important role.”

To mark National Food Safety Education Month—and 30 years since Jack in the Box—Bratager outlined the progress that’s been made and the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. 

What did we learn from the Jack in the Box and Peanut Corporation of America outbreaks and what were the key outcomes?

In both cases, one of the key things we learned was the importance of regulation. The Jack in the Box event was a watershed moment that established standard regulatory practices for food safety and led to a zero-tolerance policy for E. coli in ground beef. The Peanut Corporation of America outbreak resulted in a 28-year prison sentence for the company’s CEO, the harshest punishment ever imposed in connection with a foodborne illness outbreak. This case highlighted the importance of establishing regulatory consequences for those who fail to follow food safety laws. These events also underscored the critical importance of prevention, rather than reaction. Jack in the Box propelled the passage of legislation such as the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) Systems Rule in 1996, which required meat packing facilities to have a plan in place for keeping pathogens out of our food. Both contributed to the eventual passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) in 2011, which gave the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) a legislative mandate to require comprehensive, science-based preventive controls across the food supply.

If you had to choose one major advancement in food safety over the past 30 years, what would it be?

From a technical standpoint, whole genome sequencing has been a huge advancement. This technology allows us to get the full genetic material from an organism and makes it a lot easier to pinpoint where exactly a strain of bacteria came from and where it’s gone. There are many different kinds of Salmonella and E. coli. Being able to see the whole genome allows scientists to design more customized methods of preventing or eliminating them.

We have come a long way in food safety, but there’s more to do. Where should the science of food community be focusing its efforts? 

There are so many areas, but one of the big hurdles is information sharing and coordination. Companies are understandably reluctant to share data; they don’t want to lose their competitive advantage. But food safety needs to be precompetitive, and we need to be sharing information, like pathogen-testing data, through coordinated, collaborative efforts that advance and standardize food safety across the food system. The challenge is how to establish peer-to-peer sharing mechanisms and make data sharing secure. Another big challenge is matching the pace of innovation in food safety to the pace of innovation across the rest of the industry. Novel food sources and production methods like plant-based proteins and cellular agriculture are emerging rapidly. With new products and new practices come potential new risks, so the demand for innovation in the field of food safety to keep up with those risks is high.    

What role has IFT played in advancing food safety? 

IFT has been a pioneer in food traceability since 2008, spearheading two food product-tracing pilots for the FDA in 2012 as required by the Food Safety Modernization Act. In 2013, IFT launched the Global Food Traceability Center to protect and improve our food supply globally. For the past decade, GFTC has played a leading role in promoting food traceability solutions across the supply chain. IFT has also long maintained observer status with the United Nations’ Codex Alimentarius Commission, a key global food safety body that oversees the development of internationally aligned food standards, guidelines, and codes of practice. In addition, there is an ongoing wealth of information and expertise available through IFT’s food safety-related Divisions, like the Food Safety & Quality Management Division, as well as the IFT FIRST scientific program. 

Where do you see U.S. food safety heading next? What should we be keeping our eye on? 

As far as regulations go, many companies will be putting forth significant efforts to meet the requirements of the FDA’s Food Traceability Rule by the 2026 deadline. But a big-picture focus for the future will be the interplay between food safety, sustainability, and innovation. A sustainability advocate may want to reuse water due to the global water shortage, while a food safety expert will point out that the dirt and bacteria present in reused water pose a safety risk. How do we balance and co-manage such efforts to create sustainable practices that are still safe? This is one of our big challenges ahead. 

Interested in exploring IFT’s food safety resources? Listen to a recent IFT-led conversation about the Netflix documentary “Poisoned” and read an interview with food safety advocate Bill Marler, who is featured in the film. Explore the Jack in the Box case in closer detail. Learn about major food safety milestones with this historical timeline.

Are you a supply chain actor navigating compliance with the FDA’s Food Traceability Rule? We’re here to help! Access timely commodity-specific traceability videos and other resources from our Global Food Traceability Center. 

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