Its good to refelct on where we are every once in a while, this way we can benchmark the face of food safety which is changing all the time. So at mid year 2011, here are my thoughts.

I continue to be surprised by the way the microbes seem to outwit us.

We seem to be making progress in reducing the incidence of some specific pathogens, but others we cannot seem to get a hold on.

Traceability has two sides, it makes industry vulnerable when regulatory feels it needs to act, but it does reduce exposures.

The global transfer of pathogens is really astounding, countries around the globe were somehow invloved in the chain of EHEC O104:H4, but we don’t have all the facts. What we know is wherever the reservoir is of EHEC, the bug seems to be able to exploit a pathway and they do not respect borders at all. As we see this spring and summer in the Mystery in the South, this ability applies to states, counties, etc. within borders. And we have done a less than good job of identifying the vectors, vehicles and reservoirs, and controlling them. I don’t think we have the capacity to completely stop EHEC at this point in time.

Food safety, probably more so than any other public health problem, must be solved in and by the global food safety community, and the resources to do this work are shrinking.

I am still waiting to see any credible goverment-led food safety initiatives in the mainstream media. We have a lot of insightful writers going at the subject now from a variety of angles, and so there is education at some level, but not the type that has the answer for consumers. More and more, I don’t think we have the answer for the consumer. I think we need to tell consumers that and wake them up.

There is a serious backlash to regulation, we still hear about how backyard farmers are going to impacted by the FSMA when all those concerns are simply bogus. Some writers just want to exploit fear to sell copy. Writers continue to say that the local movement is the safe route, its so misleading, yet there may be a grain of truth in some of the argument, and it’s a definite trend to watch; a trend that will likely have good and bad effects. Riding the coatails of this movement are the so called "good for you but dangerous foods" like sprouts and raw milk. With advocates again appealing to the anti-regulatory backlash people.

Consumers continue to sue the food industry, which is expected after so many injuries. Litigation is becoming a real thorn for companies and we seem not to be able to prevent the hits. 

Well publicized outbreaks can taint an entire industry, sector, commodity and not just the brand, it’s all too clear.

The anti-regulatory climate is getting uglier with legislatures and industry teaming up to dismantle monitoring and control orf the food supply by government. We hear industry saying recalling products when pathogens are found, but no outbreak is occurring, is unnecessary.

Yet, the "voluntary" private sector food safety initiates push on and we may be making some headway with suppliers. Third party auditors can carry almost the same clout as regulators, and our ranks are growing. But we don’t have the police powers needed to truly protect and we only go when we are invited. In addition, we make recommendations, not requirements.

We are making some progress with primary production, maybe. Based on no major outbreaks in a while with produce, but after the fiasco in the EU, and several recalls in the last few months of produce, I can only say that I am "cautiously optomistic."

I could go on, but this is probably enough complaining, gloom and doom.

I have not had a GI infection in about 10 years now, so maybe things are getting a little better, who can say?

As the result of political and economic pressures, FDA will likely not have the resources it needs to carry out its responsibilities under the FSMA. What this means is that more responsibility will be placed on the food industry to self-govern. The various industry initiatives will need to expand to make up the difference.

Some of the things industry can do in cooperation with FDA include:

 

 

  • Expand education
  • Create transparency of food safety systems and risk assessments to the consumer level
  • Continue the research, development and application of food safety technology
  • Expand testing of products
  • Foster a Watchdog/Sentinel role
  • Outreach and assistance to the mid sized and small operations
  • Expand and apply traceability systems

Former ranking Republican Jack Kingston has called the U.S. food supply “99.99 percent” safe. He goes on to say “We challenge anyone to find a function of government that has a success rate better than 99.99% which the food supply, based on the Obama Administration’s own estimates, currently maintains,” said Kingston spokesman Chris Crawford.

In contrast, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last month that about one in six Americans gets sick, and 3,000 die, from foodborne diseases each year.

if .01 % of the food supply is unsafe, as Mr. Crawford explains, this would mean about 1 million meals a day eaten in the US are unsafe.

The impact to public health aside, the food industry suffers anytime there is a food recall or an outbreak, and there are political and economic outcomes, as we see today in Europe.

Regardless, industry must step forward in an even greater way than currently. I believe we are up to the challenge, but we need coordination and strengthening of the scientific basis for risk assessments and a better way to measure risk-reductions.

If FDA cannot fully apply its powers, it makes sense for industry and FDA to work together in new ways. Lets spend the money that is available in ways that will have a beneficial effect. Creating more bureaucracy is not the answer. We need a leader that both industry and FDA can trust, that can forge the type of cooperative spirit needed. That person has not emerged, yet.

 

Join me here as I go deep inside a food safety reporter’s home and kitchen and uncover the lurking, ever present microbes. Wendy Ryan and Tampa Bay’s Channel 9 really made this entertaining and educational, tough to do, we can take a few tips from these media/communication masters.

See a former health inspector test Wendy Ryan’s kitchen

Tips on food safety

http://www.abcactionnews.com/dpp/money/consumer/dirty_dining/former-health-inspector-offers-tips-to-keep-your-kitchen-clean

 

What we are seeing now in the latest peanut butter recall and the problem with hazelnuts is this continued change in illness patterns from animal derived foods, to plant derived foods.  See Bill Marler’s blog on the topic.

http://www.marlerblog.com/lawyer-oped/defranco-e-coli-hazelnut-and-skippy-salmonella-peanut-butter-recall-announcement—a-side-by-side-co/

The situation is fueled by increased consumption, scrutiny, better detection methods and more industry testing. Small outbreaks and recalls ( small-if numbers remain low) remind us that the pathogens are poised to contaminate foods wherever they can. We seem to be catching the problem earlier but the reservoirs of infection persist.

Of  chief concern to me is whether our preventive techniques are working and how well.

De Franco was certified, I would be surprised if the Skippy plant was not licensed and inspected.

So where does this leave us in prevention, what do we have to do to reduce the potential for outbreaks further so that intermittent sporadic episodes like this do not occur, or occur so infrequently that we can consider it acceptable? We are far from there, but I would like to be sure we are going in the right direction and so am interested in what further issues might be revealed by these incidents.

 

Food safety auditing and inspection is a complex world thanks to the prevalence of food hazards and the repeated nature of outbreaks where some type of inspection or audit was a feature. As I spend about 40% of my time doing this type of work, I would like to spell out what I see as the food safety inspection system roles.

In the food supply, we have provisions for self assessment, regulatory inspection and second and third party assessment Recently, we have seen media reports on the so called failures of assessment methods used by third party auditors to determine food safety risk. But the scope of recent criticism has also involved regulatory inspections. To date, much of the arguments are simplistic.

barfblog.foodsafety.ksu.edu/barfblog/tag/washington-post

The Washington Post article below, the basis for the above blog by Doug Powell did not take into account the limitations in these models, nor did it recognize the full breadth of what this field entails.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/21/AR2010102106900.html

While flaws exist in this model, there is a basic need for an accurate determination of risk that only an an accurate assessment and inspection of controls by people both in and out of the organization will provide.

As the food safety inspection science and practice has evolved, we rely upon internal reviews of food safety systems and outside entities, private and public, to provide some type of oversight, control and guidance.

Inspection by regulatory agencies are assessments of compliance with codes. Such rules are developed to protect the public and are laws. Only the inspection agency has the authority to take legal actions to protect the public. Powers include inspection without notice, closing an operation, seeking fines, and seek other administrative penalties. The inspection agency in most instances has the duty to embargo, destroy and or withhold from sale any contaminated or adulterated commodity. They may take immediate action to protect the public when an imminent health hazard is present. Licenses are issued and the privilege to maintain the license is based on compliance with the law. These roles are very different from the roles of other assessors. Protecting public health is the first, and most important public health capability of an inspection agency.

Self audits are performed by operators themselves. Th requirement for a self audit is often missing at the retail level and at the various levels of the food supply that have little or no regulatory or third party oversight. In order to perform an adequate self audit the operator must have specific training in risk assessment. While some believe that “walking around” a kitchen a few times is sufficient to make a food safety risk assessment, the findings mean little or nothing if there is no risk based method. Typically the risk based methods used by anyone performing a food safety assessment are found in codes and in third party standards.

Second party inspection is performed by buyers of products. These may be random. The second party inspector may or may not have specific food safety skills. The buyers may visit an establishment for several reasons other than inspection. While some have argued that the direct assessment of risk by buyers is the best answer to the oversight problem this method of risk assessment is also problematic when the buyer is unfamiliar with actual risks and how they develop in an operation.

Third parties are hired by firms to prove to buyers that the buyers rules are in place through a pre arranged audit of the facility and records. The voluntary third party rules or standards are complex, have many over lapping areas with laws and rules, blending diverse codes and buyer requirements that may be outside the cope of laws to provide controls for chemical, physical and biological contamination. They go further than inspection and also provide an insight into management controls and supervision; they are at once an evaluation of an organization as well as compliance with laws and rules or codes of practice. Instead of relying solely on law the third parties use a standard devloped in cooperation with the industry.

Third party auditing is also complex because the auditor often has duties of assessing risk in a wide number of arenas. Some auditors or companies have risk assessment capacity specific to a commodity, but many auditors and firms are generalists.

These roles are continuing to evolve, as the standards and laws guidance documents and rules evolve.

Do not be surprised to see more apparent dysfunction of the audit or inspection process to prevent illness. Preventing illness and injury through food is not simply a matter of inspection and involves much more than what audit company went where and who got what score.

The complicity of the auditor with the auditee and audit bias that might result from business relationships is a human problem that will not be solved by re arranging "who pays who" for an audit. The third party audit is buyer driven, meant to be educational in nature, and voluntary (in that the firm should be able to seek whatever assessment company it desires to satisfy an audit). Of course third party auditing is a competitive business and operates like one, lets be clear about those limitations.

The inspection by regulatory agencies on the other hand has the capacity to prevent illness much more readily than a third party audit. We cannot at this point, due to the limitations in the  industry driven roles and models, expect the third party auditor to prevent outbreaks or act as a go between for the regulatory agency. We can strengthen these models in some important ways but there will be a limit to how close non-regulatory frameworks will come to a regulatory audit and true public health protection.

In reality, the self audit has the most capacity to thwart risk, but only if the operational controls are well grounded on science. This is where the important strengthening must be made and this is what ideally the third party systems should focus on.

I believe that the self inspection, and second and third party models must be based upon a solid requirement that no unsafe operations are allowed to be licensed in the first place. Once we have this fundamental, the other parts of the system can function. The other parts of the food safety inspection system cannot and do not stand in the gap for laws and rules and their enforcement.

While critics are accurate in saying the third party audits at Quality Egg and PCA failed to prevent an outbreak, and thus were ineffective risk assessments, these same firms had very poor regulatory oversight.

Neither of these firms should have been open for business, and where this is the case, you will see the other parts of the model flounder badly.

 
 

Florida presses on its reckless path of destroying public health and continues its sinking spiral of deregulation. Here is another story about how political pressure by industry and lack of public outrage whittles away our safety net. All of this is occurring at a point in time where federal efforts are strengthening public health agencies to protect the food supply. Florida’s Restaurant and Health Care lobbies dictate public health policy and the apathy in Florida is truly remarkable. Transfer of public health protection to untrained licensure officials coupled with less inspection will mean more hazards and illnesses. This is exactly what we saw in the restaurant industry when the health authorities were removed from restaurant inspection.

Are we saving money? Nobody seems to think so. So what is the real motive? Its simple, here in Florida our legislature listens to industry, and whatever they want they get, what is best for the consumer is not even considered in these decisions. Not once has anyone said "this is in the best interests of the people of the state of Florida". Our political machine is off the hook here, what a SHAME.

Read more about it in Florida Today

www.google.com/url

 

 

 

 

8-4-10

An Open Letter to Carol B. Dover of the Florida Restaurant Association.

Dear Ms Dover:

In reply to your recent Tampa Tribune article

,http://www2.tbo.com/content/2010/aug/04/na-food-inspections-strong/
 

you failed to mention several important facts about your involvement in food safety and inspections in Florida. From an historical perspective, I have personally seen and experienced what you and FRA have done in regards the Division of Hotels and Restaurants (the Division), inspection. and food safety training. As you are a former Director of the Division, you should recall the following facts.

Prior to 1990, the Division, within the Florida Department of Business Regulation (DBR) shared the statutory responsibility for regulating restaurants with the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) who contracted with the county health departments to perform the inspections. While there was duplication in this relationship, the county had the authority to bring legal action through DBR and DBR ultimately controlled the license, the county had only permitting authority.

In 1990, the Office of Restaurant Programs (ORP), a state level organization, was formed under HRS to regulate restaurants, taking the food safety program from the individual counties, but leaving the DBR licensing structure in place. ORP operated for 2 years and in that time completed all requirements for inspections. Additionally, the focus under the state brought uniformity to DBR enforcement and compliance was moving forward very rapidly. In 1992, Florida had few reported foodborne illness outbreaks, and this was also the last year all inspections were performed as required in Florida.

In 1992, you successfully prevailed upon the legislature to move the new and effective health program- ORP, to the licensing agency- DBR, your former agency. Your argument at that time was that 67 counties were performing inspection 67 ways which was a facetious argument because command was already centralized in Tallahassee . But those of us in the organization saw the real reason behind this move. That reason had to do with controlling the inspection process.

DBR’s takeover of the health department’s food program was disastrous. The first cycle produced only 50% of the required establishment inspections. The transferred inspectors from ORP had to receive additional training in lodging laws and rules as well as fire safety. Conditions in Florida’s restaurants deteriorated and in 1997 we had recorded over 350 outbreaks, 10 times as many outbreaks in just 3 years.

Under the leadership of the Divisions’ head staff, a revamping of the inspection process took place and the state’s Hospitality Education Program operating from only a $6.00 fee per establishment per year trained nearly all of the state’s food service managers. Regrettably, this year the Hospitality Education Program (HEP) was decommissioned. In recent years, the HEP program had been reduced to a minor role at the Division in spite of its outstanding record, and one can only speculate the reasons behind this

In 2000, your organization successfully passed legislation requiring all Florida food workers to be trained in food safety. While training is a good idea, your organization through its political power won the right to “preferred” training provider status and the industry narrowly escaped having all other current training programs in place at that time made illegal There is no coincidence here. The new requirements for training launched a very successful FRA SafeStaff program which generates millions of dollars a year for your organizations’ lobbying efforts.

Because of your record in Florida, it is difficult for me to see your statements in the Tribune about Florida’s food safety inspection program as anything but mere political posturing. The lack of credibility at the FRA is made even more acute as your organization has the capacity to do much good for the citizens and visitors of this state.

I understand you had for many years a sign in your office in Tallahassee that read “the only good regulation is no regulation”. I might add that the only good regulation is one that benefit’s the people, and where public health and safety is concerned, those decisions traditionally have been in the hands of qualified public health scientists and medical personnel. Many believe they should remain there..

While responsible representation from industry is vital to the legislative process, public health decision making should be open, and public health laws and rule making should be as free from political pressure as our current system can make it. Right now, I am afraid recent news reports show Florida again as a bad example of how to go about food safety.

Respectfully,

Roy E Costa RS MS(MBA)

The following MSNBC story about caterers having the highest risk is right on.

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/38420815/ns/health-food_safety/
 

This has also been my experience as an investigator. The reasons for this include time and temperature abuse due to large batch cooking in advance of service sometimes 48 hours in advance, excessive handling of ready to eat foods (NoV), and facilities that are either unlicensed or woefully inadequate (cross contamination, etc, etc.). In Florida we had a campaign to get the caterers licensed.back in the 90’s. We required that catering trucks for example report daily to a commissary under inspection. We also got a state law passed (back in good old days before all food safety legislation came from industry lobbies) requiring that they put their license number up on the  delivery truck and anywhere they advertised.

Unfortunately, we estimated there were hundreds if not thousands of unlicensed caterers in Florida. They stretched all the way from neighborhood ladies baking wedding cakes (for sale) to those providing full meal service in catering halls, to vehicles delivering food to work sites, and even some preparing food for large conventions.

Too bad ignorant people are willing to hire a caterer without checking to see they are licensed and inspected. We gave up on running them down as it took so much time to ferret them out, catch them, and prosecute them (and fine them a few hundred dollars). I personally uncovered dozens of unlicensed caterers in the Central Florida area just going through phone books and ads in penny-savers and newspapers. Just another hole in the safety net that few seem to care about.

Glad this data is coming to light, but fixing this will not be easy.

Also see 30.jul.10, barfblog, Doug Powell


http://www.barfblog.com/blog/143437/10/07/30/are-catered-meals-biggest-source-foodborne-illness-americahttp://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/38420815/ns/health-food_safety/

http://barfblog.foodsafety.ksu.edu/blog/141211/10/03/08/anyone-can-prepare-food-and-make-people-barf-north-dakota


http://barfblog.foodsafety.ksu.edu/blog/143413/10/07/29/57-people-barfing-after-weddings-illinois-banquet-hall


http://barfblog.foodsafety.ksu.edu/blog/138935/09/10/12/consumer-groups-industry-lots-others-misuse-food-safety-data-political-gain

 

Food safety has risen to a mainstream issue in the last few years. The reasons behind the rising interest of the public have to do with increasing risks. These risks have resulted in numerous contaminated products, hunderds of large recalls, billions in losses, hunderds of millions in lawsuits and thousands of illness and deaths. How is it possible that our fourth largest state, Florida, would remove public health protection from some of its most vulnerable populations at a time like this? Our public health agencies and the protections they offer to "at risk populations" are without political support and governmental decisions can be easily influenced by money and political power; those are the only logical answers.

Florida has a long history of attacking public health protections. In 1992, the last year health inspectors completed the required inspections in food service operations, the powerful Florida Restaurant Association successfully moved the restaurant inspection program from the then HRS Office of Restaurant Programs to the then Department of Business Regulation, a licensing agency- not a public health agency. This shift also triggered massive realignments of agency responsibilities, transfers of hundreds of positions, and the disorganizing of what was at that time a well run and efficient  inspection operation. The problems continued to plague DBR from thence forth, and the situation was made worse through another reorganization that created the Department of Business and Professional Regulation and yet another reorganization that took place saw Florida’s Division of Hotels and Restaurants lose 20 key field positions.

Now we see a similar effort by lobbies to remove public health inspectors from institutions such as childcare centers, hospitals and nursing homes and give the licensing authority the responsibility for public health protection. History is repeating itself and the consequences will come. The situation with foodborne illness outbreaks in Institutions has been remarkably lower than in restaurants. Only about 10% of the food borne illness outbreaks investigated by the health department (yes they would still be responsible for that) are attributed to institutional food service.

Florida holds the number one ranking in foodborne illness reported in the nation. Some of this has to be looked at in terms of the remaining Department of Health DOH environmental epidemiologists in the field and their excellent work uncovering outbreaks, but the fact is the numbers are too high. We do not want to repeat these mistakes, but we here in Florida are all too familiar with Tallahassee’s good ol’ boy backroom politics and the tactics of industry lobbies.

Its a shame our government lets the people down time and again in favor of special business interests, but this latest attack on public health protection and the safety of food for kids, old folks and those already ill is a new low for Florida.

Please see the following article for more information.

FLORIDA: New law removes health inspectors
25.jul.10
Tampa Bay Online
Carl Orth
www2.tbo.com/content/2010/jul/25/pa-new-law-removes-health-inspectors/

Recent statements by several experts about the legitimacy of third party audits are missing the point. Third party audits are far from Ponzi schemes. They act to protect the buyer when they are realistically representative of the safety of foods and the buyer uses then as a basis for buying decisions. If there is a major shortcoming, it is that buyers do not always adhere to the audit findings, and choose their suppliers on some other basis. Buyers on the other hand are obligated to get the products needed to sell at the retail level. We all need food, and the retail industry cannot stop supplying consumers every time there is a potential problem revealed in an audit. Buyers of food are not police officers empowered to cut off suppliers with questionable sanitation. On the other hand, reputable firms are blind when they purchase unsafe products that would have been very apparent if tested or a visit to the facility made.

As I have argued, apparently in vain, the lack of a foundation of food safety throughout the food supply is the real culprit, not the weaknesses of the third party model. There should be no one, not one firm operating without the oversight of a government agency enforcing minimum standards. As some have written, minimum standards are all we can expect from government, but that is a lot. Without them, its naïve thinking that the industry will “police” itself. That is not what industries do; they expect government to do this. One of the paradigms that must be broken is that getting rid of government inspectors and turning all food safety totally over to industry is the wave of the future. Industry associations have argued this and to an extent have short-circuited the food safety system, but they have been pretty quiet of late and these same associations are now calling for intensive oversight.

I believe very strongly in industry self control, but we need to realize that the way business works, that self-control will be stronger or weaker depending on the entities involved. Therefore I argue that we need both; we need a validated industry self control model and an effective governmental oversight model working in tandem.

What happened at PCA was deplorable but it is not the standard for the third party audit industry. Most auditors understand and report risks, they do not allow relationships that develop on the job to sway them.  Many just go about their business politely and professionally, but still record the errors they see, there is a knack to doing this that we learn. The best auditing firms are very aggressive about not allowing inappropriate relationships to happen, sure, it does, but the best of us discourage it. Auditors are not just vendors that show up at a plant; that is something that industry must also come to realize.

As I have also written, I have faith that this is all working for the best, because basically I have faith in this country and its ability to rise above the obstacles, especially now that we have reached a “Jungle” experience again after 100 years.

Now with consumers, legislatures, media and government appalled by what happened in Plainview and Blakely I predict we will see a real partnership between industry and government. I also believe third party auditing firms will play an important role in bringing order out of the chaos.

In conclusion, once our government enforces basic sanitation throughout the food chain, third parties will be able to do what they do best, and that is separate the Good, from the Excellent from the Superior. It is ridiculous that there is even one firm operating in “Poor” or less capacity such as I observed at PCA. Third parties in reality should never see this. This is lax government oversight. Do not expect third parties to fix the poorest operating facilities, it is not their role, that role belongs to the public health community and fixing that problem will fix most others.