What We Mean When We Talk About Safety

This column originally ran in the March 2013 issue of Food Manufacturing.

As those in the food industry rush to embrace new food safety rules that promise to make food safer for consumers, a less examined public health threat is lurking, and food processors may soon come face-to-face with a brand new set of regulations designed to stop it.

I n the time that I’ve covered the food industry, I’ve observed a noticeable shift in the attitudes of food processing professionals toward an embrace of sensible regulations. One needn’t look much further than page 14 of this magazine (“Food Safety Update: Juice Processing”), and the reader survey analysis like it that we run in each issue, to see that the food industry professionals who read Food Manufacturing generally hold food safety regulations and federal compliance guidance in high regard. In my conversations and correspondence with readers,

I believe that many of the high-profile recalls over the past several years have begun to shift both public and industry sentiment toward one of remedy instead of reticence.

Some of this willingness, I believe, stems from the fact that food industry professionals are, by necessity, also food consumers. Your concerns about the safety protocol being employed in facilities across the world goes beyond your concern for your employers’ bottom lines and protection from legal and regulatory liability. These concerns extend to your own families and their health and safety.

Many, many readers have told me that they’re confident in their own facilities and the food safety procedures they employ; the regulations — even the new ones rolled out under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) — don’t really impact their business, because they already meet those requirements due to company diligence, the desire to meet Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) standards or the need to comply with their own customers’ food safety demands. But these same readers tell me that they don’t quite trust their competitors or the food companies down the street or the facilities they’ve never been inside. And they’re willing to swallow regulations that might add a little extra paperwork to their day if it means a little extra peace of mind when they stop off for a few groceries on the way home.

Even large industry groups support food safety regulation. The American Beverage Association and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, two of the largest food industry lobbying groups, came out in support of the FSMA and have been heavily involved in the rulemaking process. Their input has no doubt helped shape the new regulations into something that will keep food safer in a way that’s achievable for food manufacturing companies.

The truth is: meeting food safety regulations is the bare minimum of what food companies should be doing to ensure the safety of their products. In fact,for processing facilities certified by any of the GFSI benchmarking schemes — British Retail Consortium (BRC), International Featured Standards (IFS), Safe Quality Food (SQF) and, newly added in 2013, Global Red Meat Standard (GRMS) — the very first step is maintaining compliance with all published food safety laws. These days Wal-Mart requires higher food safety standards than the U.S. government, so food processors interested in remaining relevant in an increasingly competitive market shouldn’t (and don’t) grouse about regulations because they need to operate at a much higher level than the government requires.

But new studies are emerging that suggest the public’s greatest risk from processed food isn’t potential contamination, but rather health-related issues directly associated with eating junk. Many people believe that it is John Q. Public’s right, for example, to choose whether or not to eat a bucket of chicken. If he chooses to do so, we say, he runs the risk of the negative health impacts associated with such a decision. I would tend to agree.

But we don’t, conversely, argue that if John Q. Public wants to pay less for chicken processed without the benefit of food safety oversight, he should be able to do so and run the risk of dying of dysentery.  We acknowledge the role of government in ensuring safe food, but what we mean when we talk about safety might be off the mark.

To be clear, I don’t think New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Big Gulp ban is necessary or effective. But a ban on trans fats — as has been imposed in Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland and other countries across Europe, and which the American Medical Association (AMA) has urged the U.S. to adopt — seems prudent. Soda, if consumed in moderation, can be part of a healthy diet. Trans fats absolutely cannot.

As new science continues to shed light on the impact of the foods we eat, the public’s health concerns may exert market pressure on food companies, forcing them to create healthier foods without federal regulators strong-arming them into it. But at some point the industry and regulators will be faced with a question over what should be considered a choice and what should be considered contamination. We don’t allow consumers to choose salmonella in their foods, and banning sugar outright is ludicrous. What, as a community, are we willing to accept in the food on our plates? Do we need federal oversight to keep it from getting there?