Costa Sponsors Food Safety Symposium for Operators

That was the uncompromising claim made at a food safety symposium for operators (that also offered valuable insights for distributors) jointly sponsored Monday, Feb. 26, by locally-based ID Top 50 Costa Fruit & Produce Co. and the Massachusetts Restaurant Association.

The assertion was emphatically stated by Lisa M. Berger of Berger Food Safety Consultants of Boston, one of eight speakers during the half-day session.

With food safety top of mind for the foodservice supply chain in the wake of last year's latest spate of fatal incidences involving fresh produce, more than 200 operators – commercial and noncommercial – attended the forum to learn about the pratfalls connected with handling perishable products from the field to the kitchen.

Berger and the other speakers cited chilling CDC-based statistics about foodborne pathogen injuries that should cause everyone along the supply chain to take notice of the responsibility they bear for safety. The data claim there are 76 million foodborne pathogen outbreaks each year, resulting in 350,000 hospitalizations and 5,000-10,000 deaths. Twelve percent of the fatalities come from contaminated produce.
Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points

(In case you forgot them.)

HACCP Principle 1: Conduct a Hazard Analysis
Prepare a Process Flow Diagram of the Steps in the Process.
Identify and list all possible Hazards and Specify their Control Measures.

HACCP Principle 2: Determine the "CCPs"
Use a Decision Tree (or other acceptable method) to determine if the Hazard makes the Process Step a "CCP" or not.

HACCP Principle 3: Establish Critical Limits
Specify the criteria that MUST be met to ensure that each hazard (which makes a Process Step a "CCP") is in "Control."

HACCP Principle 4: Establish Monitoring Procedures
Implement systems to monitor the "control" status of the identified Hazard.
Hold such documentation and records under strict Document Control conditions.

HACCP Principle 5: Establish Corrective Actions
Make practical plans for re-dressing a "CCP" that has gone out of "control" in advance so that actions taken are effective, calm and planned.

HACCP Principle 6: Establish Verification Procedures
Make practical plans for checking whether the HACCP Plan is working or not.

HACCP Principle 7: Establish Documentation
Document all procedures and records appropriate to the Principles of HACCP and their application.

Berger urged the operators to make sure that all of their food handlers are educated in food safety, are aware of the illness policies, properly maintain their personal hygiene and are familiar with correct food handling, washing and sanitizing.

"I can't stress how important food safety education is," Berger said.

Berger, who teaches ServSafe courses and is a trainer for Costa, underscored the importance of foodservice distributors in educating their operator-customers about food safety and pointing out potentially dangerous employee behavior. She recalled that occasionally sales reps who have attended her classes see problems that they relate to their customers.

"It's worthwhile for sales reps to say something when they see problems. They could suggest to their customers that education could be a good course of action because of the liability they face and the outbreaks," Berger told ID Access.

Additionally, distributors should be responsible for training operators because if an outbreak does occur, the aftereffects will go up the chain to the distributor even though it could be the fault of the restaurant, she noted.

"So it is in distributors' interest to make sure that their clients are trained in food safety by providing them with books or courses. Providing food-safety training enforces how strongly they believe in the food-safety message and education. It also gives them the opportunity to show their customers what they are doing to assure the safety of their products," she said, additionally pointing out that distributorships themselves should maintain a high level of food-safety awareness in their facilities.

It is common knowledge that maintaining food safety throughout the supply chain, as prescribed by the seven HACCP principles, keeps patrons safe and businesses thriving.

However, rhetorically asked Peter Christie, president and ceo of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association: "Do we really know it is safe? What should operators do to mitigate outbreaks? What else can everyone along the supply chain do to mitigate exposure to foodborne illness?"

Christie said generally-accepted, verifiable standards provide visible certifications that will reassure foodservice patrons that the food is safe.

"Even if we have to pay more, if it makes patrons more comfortable then it's worth it," Christie said. "Food safety is nonnegotiable."

Bryan Silbermann, president of the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, DE, noted that in the past six months he has been fielding more questions from many sources dealing with the safety of fresh produce rather than culinary and marketing topics that he had addressed in the past.

"There has to be a commitment to deliver a safe, tasty, healthy eating experience every bite, every time," Silbermann said. "The responsibility for food safety goes down the line, throughout the supply chain."

Urging the audience to "de-commoditize" produce or else pathogen outbreaks will continue, Silbermann added his voice to others who have been calling for the development of new metrics for fresh produce as well as verifiable and measurable standards.

Touching on the so-called Marketing Agreement (see ID Report of Feb. 2) that was recently concluded, Silbermann said it was the fastest way to get to a regulatory process. It mandates that produce handlers and processors buy products only from growers that have agreed to the metrics.

Produce end users, he said, should not be confident in the safety of their fresh produce in their kitchens if they don't know from whom they bought it.

"Ask yourselves, do I know the distributor and what specs does he have about his suppliers. How well have I trained my handlers on food safety," he asked.

His appeal dovetailed with Berger's list of major risk factors of foodborne pathogen outbreaks: Purchasing from unsafe sources, poor hygiene, cross contamination and time/temperature abuse.

Andrea Fontaine, laboratory director, Food Research Laboratories, Boston, offered the following characteristics of a reputable supplier:

  • Participates in trade organizations
  • Monitors its suppliers
  • Conducts analyses of products
  • Conducts environmental analyses
  • Has food safety programs
  • Adheres to HACCP principles
  • Conducts third-party audits

    Fontaine said a frightening aspect of the CDC statistics is that they are incomplete, indicating that there could be more injuries and deaths. She believes that a majority of foodborne illnesses are unreported because a small number of people are involved and they don't need extensive medical care, the incubation period for the affect to take hold is long and victims forget, outbreaks are geographically dispersed, pathogen identification is difficult, and reporting is sparse.

    All of this means that in an industry that is regulated more than any other in the country, food safety is belittled until a foodborne pathogen injury occurs.

    Produce pathogen outbreaks have doubled in 1998-2004 from 44 to 85. Fontaine said ironically the popularity of the product has led to the increase. Additionally, produce is being sourced from numerous overseas points, some of which have dubious or no standards, she added.

    "HACCP won't work in dirty situations, where sinks don't work." – Andrea Fontaine
    Fontaine warned operators (and the cautions pertain to distributors as well) not to make any assumption about the safety and wholesomeness of the food that they buy if they can't verify that the products have been inspected and certified.

    "If it's not documented, it has not been done. Food safety is one more risk to be managed," she said, stressing that due diligence must be performed on all suppliers.

    Pathogens can creep into the food supply when previously damaged or contaminated produce is further processed, Fontaine pointed out. Food becomes contaminated due to a lack of operational controls, sanitation controls, employee controls and temperature controls, she said.

    The supply chain should not be lulled into a false sense of security by declaring that its facilities where food is stored or processed adhere to universally displayed HACCP principles, Fontaine said.

    "HACCP won't work in dirty situations, where sinks don't work. HACCP works where personal hygiene is maintained and cleaning and sanitizing measures are taken," he pointed out.

    "I can't stress how important food safety education is." – Lisa Berger
    As stories about foodborne pathogen incidences appear in the news media, more federal agencies – and there are 12 of them in addition to state and local ones – will intensity monitoring of the foodservice supply chain, said Michael Jantschke, director of food safety for Pro*Act, the distributor produce co-cop based in Monterey, CA.

    "The searchlight will move up and down the supply chain and focus on distributors and operators," he said.

    Jantschke said the only way to reduce risks and ensure food safety is to control the food safety chain up to the operator's door.

    "Operators should know where the product is coming from and how to handle produce," he added.

    The Association's Christie told ID that the educational value of such a distributor-operator forum cannot be taken too lightly. While operators try to purchase from reputable distributors, he said, "Everybody's fear is another outbreak."

    "To the extent that we could pull together, we learn some best practices and learn some things that will help operators mitigate their exposure," Christie said.

    He feels the symposium enhanced distributor-operator trust and highlighted terminology that should become common for restaurateurs and foodservice directors.

    "Distributor forums for operators would raise their knowledge and awareness of food safety and contribute to reducing foodborne pathogen outbreaks. From an operator's perspective, one of the most important aspects of food safety is understanding the potential for danger that exists. Once operators understand that, they will go to great lengths not to expose themselves to that. If more distributors would do this around the country, they would find the industry getting more involved and we'd all be better off. It is important for operators to be armed with this knowledge to show that they genuinely care because they do really genuinely care," Christie said.

    "Distributors add value to their customer relationships when they take the time to explain food safety." – Manuel R. Costa
    According to Manny Costa, president and ceo of the distributorship, who has championed produce food safety for years and paved the way for the creation of Pro*Act, operators came away from the symposium with a better understanding of supply chain food safety. Cost told ID Access that it is important for restaurateurs and foodservice directors to understand that produce is not an innocuous product category. Maintaining food safety standards is a supply chain responsibility that stretches to the operator's kitchen, he said.

    "Operators came away with an understanding that they have to rely on their distributors and question their criteria for buying product. They also came away with a better understanding of the sources of contaminants that exist throughout the supply chain," said Costa, who is also a member of ID Editorial Advisory Board.

    With distributors in most cases being the produce procurement agents for their customers, Costa continued, operators should make an effort to question their decision-making process. He added that his company as well as Pro*Act feel responsible for training their accounts in food safety and then pointing out to them their shortcomings.

    "Distributors add value to their customer relationships when they take the time to explain food safety and help them with their food safety programs," he said.


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