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Prepared by: Doug Powell, associate professor of food safety at Kansas State University and the publisher of barfblog.com; and Ben Chapman, a food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. Powell can be contacted at 785-317-0560 or dpowell@k-state.edu. Chapman can be contacted at 919-809-3205 or benjamin_chapman@nscu.edu.

Monday, Feb. 9, 2009

OPINION: MARKET FOOD SAFETY SO CONSUMERS CAN CHOOSE

MANHATTAN -- In 1204 in Montpellier, France, a butcher selling a substitute meat in place of the advertized beast was required by statute to reimburse the customer twice the amount paid. In Narbonne, regulations dictated a whipping with sheep tripe in front of the food stall for unscrupulous sellers. China routinely executes its biggest food frauds.

During a recent hearing before the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee looking into a salmonella outbreak linked to a Georgia peanut processing plant, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont said that food producers responsible for widespread, deadly outbreaks of disease should face jail time, not just fines, to get food makers to take food safety seriously.

Sixteen years after E. coli O157:H7 killed four and sickened hundreds who ate hamburgers at the Jack-in-the-Box chain, the challenge remains: how to get people to take food safety seriously?

Lots of companies do take food safety seriously and the bulk of American meals are microbiologically safe. But recent food-safety failures have been so extravagant, so insidious and so continual that consumers must feel betrayed.

The politicos in Washington are focused on legislative fixes, such as creating a single-food inspection agency, increasing inspections, insisting microbiological test results be submitted to government, and mandating jail time for the most audacious executives. Such moves may send a signal of hope and change, but will do little to reduce the carnage contaminated food and water wreak on the American public each year -- 76 million illnesses and 5,000 deaths.

Industry – the folks that process peanuts and all those companies that make some of the 1,200 different peanut butter crackers, ice cream, energy bars and dog treats that have been recalled -- is equally void of ideas. The system to ensure safe food relies largely on so-called third-party audits of suppliers, which glowingly approved Peanut Corporation of America and its leaky roof, filthy floors and rat-infested storage areas.

Other peanut butter manufacturers like Unilever and ConAgra Foods say they have "stringent food safety and quality control standards." But neither will say what it is they do better than the Peanut Corporation of America; neither will say how often the plants test their finished product for foodborne illnesses or other contamination.

Maple Leaf Foods in Canada, whose deli meats killed at least 20 Canadians last fall, says it has done 42,000 tests for listeria across 24 packaged meat plants in the past three months, but will not make the results publicly available for scrutiny.

Even Whole Foods, where consumers pay a hefty premium for basic foodstuffs, said the company carefully checks the paperwork for all the products it sells, but can do no better than the minimal standard of government. "For the thousands of products we sell, that's the extent we can go to. The rest of it is up to the Food and Drug Administration and to the manufacturer," a company spokeswoman said.

Like a fiscal house of cards, this Ponzi scheme of inspection and verification for food safety is collapsing with merely the mention of consumer scrutiny. Sort of like an eighth-grade party with chaperones: just pop and chips. But when the inspector or auditors leave, the party turns exciting (read all about it on Facebook).

A cultural shift is required for everyone, from the farm through to the fork, to take food safety seriously. Frank Yiannas, the vice president of food safety at Wal-Mart, has taken an initial stab in his new book, "Food Safety Culture: Creating a Behavior-based Food Safety Management System."

Yiannas says that an organization's food-safety systems need to be an integral part of its culture. At Peanut Corporation of America, former employees are now coming forward to tell of filthy conditions in the Blakely, Ga., processing plant. A company with a strong food-safety culture would have encouraged those employees to speak up while they were employed, not because the manager or auditor or inspector was watching, but because it was the right thing to do.

The best food producers, processors, retailers and restaurants should go above and beyond minimal government and auditor standards and sell food-safety solutions directly to the public. The best organizations will use their own people to demand ingredients from the best suppliers; use a mixture of encouragement and enforcement to foster a food-safety culture; and use technology to be transparent -- whether it's live webcams in the facility or real-time test results on the Web site -- to help restore the shattered trust with the buying public.

Here's what consumers can do: at the local market, the stop-n-shop or the supermarket, ask someone I charge, "How do I know this food won't make me barf?" While such talk may be socially frowned upon, it's time to put aside the niceties and bureaucratese and talk directly about safe food.

The more customers ask, the more food providers will be encouraged to market their food-safety efforts.

Just like in 13th-century France.