Industry ‘Soaks Up’ Food Safety Information

To be sure, the situation isn't under control and deaths and illnesses due to foodborne contamination haven't been eliminated. However, there is hope the industry "gets it" based on its professionals' continuous demand for current information about maintaining food safety in their operations as well as how to implement in a timely manner the myriad best practices.

Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, haven't adjusted in several years their estimates that the United States annually faces 76 million cases of foodborne illness and 5,000 associated deaths, industry experts believe the instances of such outbreaks are decreasing – despite a few well-publicized occurences.

{mosimage}"Consumers expect safe, quality food and foodservice professionals take their role very seriously as they deliver those expectations. They look at their programs and see where they can improve," said Dr. Donna Garren, vice president of food safety and regulatory affairs, National Restaurant Association, Washington, DC, in a recent interview with ID Access.

Garren likened restaurant operators to sponges, "wanting to find out more and more information."

"I've been impressed by this industry's willingness and eagerness to learn more, do better and constantly improve," she stated.


Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points

(You can't repeat them often enough.)

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.

"Dining out is an experience that our consumers have enjoyed for quite a long time and we want to continue that. I think that's what the quality-assurance professionals and risk and safety managers in the restaurant industry take very seriously. They want to make sure that people have confidence going into a restaurant and enjoy that experience, and not have to worry about food safety and security."

A food-safety expert who worked in the produce industry before taking this position with the NRA this past spring, Garren said operators' principal concern is verifying the source of the food products that they are menuing in their restaurants and confirming that food safety principles are adhered to along the supply chain. The initiatives undertaken by sophisticated operators are sure to have implications for foodservice distributors and manufacturers, who will now have to substantiate the sources of their products as well as the integrity of the cold chain.

"Oftentimes, restaurants are two or three times removed from the farm gate. Still, operators want to know where they can get information to be involved in helping to improve food safety throughout the supply chain," she said.

The first step in verifying that food safety principles, including HACCP, are in place is by posing questions, Garren advised.

"Operators should ask if audits are being done by third-party organizations. They must verify their vendors' food safety programs and the risk factors in their operations," she suggested. "Basically, it's about opening a dialogue and verifying the practices. It's about not being afraid to ask those questions along the supply chain."

Garren revealed that many operators' food safety specifications exceed regulatory standards and they likewise demand from their suppliers, i.e., distributors, as well as their suppliers' vendors' documentation that food safety specifications are maintained, managed, checked and verified.

"They're making sure that their suppliers are looking at their operations objectively and critically. It is something very impressive to see," she said.

In addition to keeping an eye on accidental food contamination, Garren also examines industry efforts aimed at fighting intentional contamination of the food supply by international or domestic criminals. This task is becoming more challenging with the increase in international food trade, she noted.

Having been involved in the security of the supply chain since 2001, Garren believes this topic is important not only because of the larger health issues but because food and agriculture have an impact of the national economy.

"It is a critical infrastructure that must be protected. Our members remember that it is a component of their crisis management," she said. "Many multi-unit operators are seeing the need to make sure that they are protecting their brands and operations from intentional contamination."

Another area of intense observation is animal diseases, such as mad cow and bird flu, Garren said.

"We are closely monitoring what is going on in Asia with bird flu and working with people in the states who can help us limit and, as much as possible, avoid that risk," she said, listing the Center for Veterinary Medicine, the Food and Drug Administration, the World Health Organization and CDC, among other groups, with which she and other food safety professionals work to harness the spread of the diseases.

"I do believe that animal diseases are going to be very important to our industry," Garren said, noting that mad cow curtails the export of domestic cattle, which, in turn, affects overseas restaurants that rely on U.S. beef products.

"By monitoring and talking with the USDA, FDA and CDC, we can know everything that we need to know about controlling the risks associated with animal diseases. It's a matter of working with suppliers in the supply chain," she said in explaining why she is boosting her involvement with supply-chain issues.

With National Food Safety Month in September, we asked Garren if this year's theme, hand washing, and the attendant worker behavioral failure, sloppiness, are more critical to operators and their patrons than outbreaks of mad cow disease.

"I do believe that animal diseases are going to be very important to our industry."
"If you look at statistics, you could make the case that the lack of hand washing or personal hygiene could be more detrimental to the industry than mad cow or another animal disease," she responded, noting that the act of hand washing is a "hurdle" for transmitting many contaminants.

"Hand washing is always going to be an important control measure that operators and the rest of the supply chain can take to manage and limit contamination. Hand washing is always going to have a part in food safety at restaurants and the supply chain."

As for occurrences of animal diseases, Garren believes consumers are more interested in them because of media attention, adding that restaurant patrons would demonstrate more concern with kitchen staffs' personal hygiene if the media regularly paid attention to proper hand-washing techniques.

While she hasn't seen obvious instances of food safety bad practices, Garren is aware that the production of perishable products such as food carries with itself the potential for contamination. The industry should also be aware of this possibility, she noted.

"As much as you need to control them, bacteria and viruses seem to overcome some of the hurdles that you put in place," she said, suggesting that the more "hurdles" operators have in place, the greater their chances are to avoid the spread of foodborne pathogens.

"If you continue to look at your operation critically, you're going to be successful," she advised. "Operators should also work with their distributors to ensure that quality food is coming into the distribution centers and from there to the restaurants."


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