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Producers Big and Small Share Food Safety Responsibility

October 14, 2015

By: Jennifer McEntire, PhD- Vice President, Science Operations

There is a commonly held, but erroneous belief that locally produced food and/or food from smaller establishments is safer. But when you take a deep dive into the facts an interesting picture emerges: bigger producers far away from your home actually produce very safe food.  

Sometimes it seems like there are a lot more food related outbreaks and recalls than in decades past. And in fact, there are. But it’s not because food is less safe. It’s because food safety professionals, both in the food industry and at the regulatory agencies, are so much better at identifying problems and at putting the brakes on the distribution of food that has even the most remote possibility of causing illness. And in those instances where illnesses do result, we are increasingly able to connect the dots that alert us that an issue has occurred.

That means we are stopping them faster, and spreading the word so that consumers don’t unknowingly put themselves at risk. In the past, there were presumably many outbreaks that we just never knew about. Now we have the science and technology to detect and respond to issues during food production.

The food industry – no matter what the size, no matter where in the world- acts swiftly and responsibly to protect consumers.

So how many outbreaks are there? How often do people get sick from food? In 2013 (the last year analyzed), there were 19,162 cases of foodborne illness in the U.S. – or about 1 person in every 166,000 people.

The first important thing to understand is that the vast majority – usually about 90 percent – of confirmed cases are sporadic, meaning that only one person got ill. Historically, it’s been virtually impossible to know what food caused the illness, although that is rapidly changing. Advances in molecular biology can match human cases with bacteria that might have been found in a food product years before.

Second, these numbers are only illnesses from bacteria or parasites. In actuality, about 30% of food-related illness is from viruses, usually due to improper hygiene at the point of food preparation (e.g., in a home, restaurant, etc.). Those types of illnesses have nothing to do with commercial food production, big or small. That leaves us with a relatively small number of illnesses that we can trace back to commercially grown or prepared food.

In 2014 the CDC highlights 13 multi-state outbreaks. Of the 13:

  • 3 outbreaks each affected more than 100 people
  • 2 outbreaks each affected between 30 and 40 people
  • 8 outbreaks each had less than 20 cases of illness

Additionally, when we look at how widespread or localized the food was, we see that:

  • 1 outbreak impacted more than 30 states
  • 4 affected 12-19 states
  • 8 were limited to 1-6 states

Although CDC lists 13 multistate outbreaks for 2014, there are many, many more outbreaks that are investigated by state and local health departments, and CDC lists those too. What we can glean is that most outbreaks are contained at the local level, possibly because they are due to improper handling at the point of preparation, or because they are from more local food sources that are not widely distributed.

When you think about how much food needs to be produced to feed all of us eat at least three times a day, it’s remarkable that our food supply is as safe as it is.

Americans enjoy one of the safest food supplies in the world, and for GMA, ensuring the safety of our products is the single more important goal of our industry. My friends and colleagues at GMA and across the industry hold themselves- and their peers- to the highest food safety standards. Safe food is everyone’s responsibility and requires ongoing effort by food companies of all sizes, everywhere.

 

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