From my youngest days as a farmer’s daughter in Iowa, I learned the importance of food quality and food safety. My family, neighbors, and extended farming community worked hard to ensure our animals were raised with care and crops were planted, cultivated, harvested, and stored conscientiously. It was a responsibility we took very seriously, as it was not only our livelihood, but we also understood that what we produced was meant for the tables of others.
Fast forward a few years and I found myself a college graduate with a degree in biology, ready to take on the world. From my first real job in a food testing laboratory monitoring vitamin and mineral levels in foods to the contract research team I lead today, I have carried with me the food quality and safety lessons I learned on the farm. Throughout my career, I have had the opportunity to support a myriad of food safety and quality initiatives, including working in pathogen testing labs, conducting research to verify the microbial safety of new foods, and overseeing local and global programs and research studies. Much like IFT, my career has been focused on providing a safe, nutritious, and sustainable food supply for all through the science of food.
Considering my lifelong connection to food safety, it seems fitting that I begin serving my term as president during National Food Safety Education Month, which is celebrated every September to raise awareness of the importance of food safety education. As food scientists, we are all too familiar with the numerous steps stakeholders throughout the value chain take to ensure the safety of our food supply. Cleanliness, validation of processing parameters, temperature control, pest control, cross-contamination control, and environmental monitoring provide the basis for ensuring food remains free of pathogens and other illness-causing agents. But that’s just the beginning. Thorough data collection throughout the food processing and production system allows for regular risk assessments to be conducted, and continuous process improvements to be made. Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) systems provide the framework for monitoring the entire food system. Employing science-based good agricultural practices, conducting routine microbiological and analytical chemistry testing, and regularly evaluating control procedures are also critical steps taken to protect our food supply.
Yet despite our diligence, an estimated one in 10 people globally gets sick every year from eating contaminated food and a staggering 420,000 die as a result, according to the World Health Organization. In the United States alone, 48 million people get sick each year due to one or another of 31 pathogens, and 3,000 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As the food science community continues to do its part to minimize foodborne illness outbreaks, IFT is lending its support through a number of initiatives. IFT brings together food scientists who spend their days working to mitigate the presence of pathogens in our foods in our Food Microbiology Division. Our Toxicology and Safety Evaluation Division also supports food safety with their important work, focusing more on chemical contaminants. Other product category-specific divisions also work in this space. In fact, nearly all of our 27 divisions play some part in the drive to improve food safety. If any of these divisions sound like a place where you’d like to make your mark, I strongly encourage you to get involved. Your knowledge, expertise, and volunteer enthusiasm would be a welcome addition.
In addition, as part of its efforts to assist the global food industry in tracing products through the supply chain to improve food safety, diminish risk, and avert devastating health consequences and economic losses, the IFT Global Food Traceability Center (GFTC) is developing capabilities and tools focusing on interoperability standards for efficient global food traceability across the entire supply chain. The GFTC was founded following IFT’s integral work with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to pilot traceability as part of the Food Safety Modernization Act and continues their collaboration with the FDA to help delineate the role of new digital technologies to improve integrated food safety and traceability systems.
Whether your daily responsibilities are directly or indirectly tied to food safety, your actions to protect our global food supply are appreciated beyond measure. Take pride in your efforts, and then take a moment this month to remind your family and friends of the simple things they can do such as properly washing their hands, segregating utensils and cutting boards used for raw foods from those for cooked foods, and employing a meat thermometer to make sure the food you worked so hard to produce can be enjoyed worry-free at the family table.