What keeps you up at night? Experts share their worst food safety nightmares

Top 5 food safety nightmares for food safety types:

1. Risk management and culture of food safety in small manufacturers

2. Supply chain management and gaps

3. New/upcoming regulations such as GFSI audits and FSMA

4. Physical plant security (and bioterrorism risk)

5. There was only four, but who does a top 4 list?

Food Safety Tech asked members of its advisory board what kept them awake at night, food–safety-wise.

David Acheson, MD, Leavitt Partners, has seen and dealt with all sorts of public health disasters related to food safety during his time at the U.S. Food and Drug administration. But his concern is not just those big disasters, but the lack of adequate controls and understanding of all the risks, especially among the smaller players.

“It’s not the big guys that worry me at night, but the medium guys, who don’t understand all the risks,” says Dr. Acheson, and he attributes this to ignorance rather than malignance.

While big growers and food manufacturers face trouble, they are able to confine it to one part of the company and have the resources—technical, people and money—to tackle those risks and manage them.

Small players need to mobilize resources as an industry to come together and address food safety concerns. For instance the pistachio industry, which suffered a Salmonella outbreak a few years ago, was hit with decreased sales. While the problem in one facility didn’t cause anyone to get sick, it created a widespread perception that pistachios will be tainted with Salmonella, so people stopped buying. But the whole industry—characterized by small suppliers—wanted to raise the bar and by being proactive about food safety, changed that trend.

In smaller companies, the culture of food safety and the perspective of the CEO have a great role to play. Is the culture to be reactive or preventive?

Acheson refers to instances when food safety managers have struggled to get traction with leadership when it comes to paying more attention to food safety initiatives: “Excuses for not doing something proactive can be ‘We have been doing it this way for years and never had any problems; or never had to face an FDA inspection, recalls etc.’”

Donald W. Schaffner at Rutgers University, recently returned from a training session with New Jersey farmers interested in entering the food business.

Probably because of the state of the economy, when companies downsize, or when people consider a change in career, many of them seem to think it can’t be too hard to get into food business.

“Take the instance of Whole Foods Market; they are trying to do the right thing by sourcing locally etc, which inherently means that they are buying from smaller entrepreneurs. And in most cases, such small farmers don’t have food safety systems in place,” points out Schaffner, who also serves as the Director of the Center for Advanced Food Technology.
Schaffner wants to see industry and regulators focusing on what can be done to support the mom-and-pop, smaller farmers and entrepreneurs to put in place safety systems.

Larry Epling, Divisional QA/Food Safety Manager – FPP at Perdue Farms, Inc. said that companies need to expand the scope beyond that of GFSI audits.

“Most of the companies now require GFSI audits. In some cases, we may have the audits in place, but this may not help address a scenario in which the supplier has switched ingredients, because something is cheaper and more easily available. Since it’s the same ingredient, it’s not a labeling issue, but it can still result in compromising the quality of the product, or worse, include hidden allergens that you were unaware of.”

Epling feels while the GFSI audits and requirements are good, the presence of multiple standard-setting organizations (such as SQF Institute and others), all of which mandate different processes and audits, can confuse the industry. He feels that as an industry, there is the need to better understand major suppliers, and not solely rely on third party audits.