Healthy food kills—or at least it can.
In 2010 foodborne illness sickened nearly 20,000 Americans. Of those infected, more than 4,000 had to be hospitalized; 68 died. The main culprits were bacteria—Salmonella and Escherichia coli, to be precise—that had taken cover in products widely considered healthy. Although E. coli infection rates have declined somewhat since food production companies began meeting new federal food safety regulations in 2006, cases of salmonella infection have remained steady for more than a decade. Americans spend an estimated $365 million in direct medical costs each year treating cases of Salmonella poisoning, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In an effort to try to reduce outbreaks some farmers and manufacturers lately have instituted new practices, rather than waiting for tougher governmental regulations. Their motivation: the bottom line.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which can trace its regulatory origins to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, has yet to enforce a universal set of standards for making sure the food we eat is safe. Instead, the agency has issued regulations on an industry-by-industry basis. Regulations introduced in January were designed to strengthen the 2011 Food Safety and Modernization Act by giving the FDA power to directly regulate agribusiness.
Tougher rules may not help. Although FDA Deputy Food Commissioner Michael Taylor promises that national reform is on its way, the agency has little power to enforce the laws it hopes to mandate on U.S. farms. And domestic farms have historically been noncompliant with federal legislation. The FDA oversees more than three million food facilities, two million farms, 900,000 restaurants, 114,000 grocery retail outlets and 189,000 “other” food facilities. Without a robust effort to enforce safety mandates, the majority of these facilities go unregulated. The FDA currently inspects most U.S. food manufacturers once every 10 years. Passing federal legislation is one thing, Taylor notes. Enforcing compliance is another. “This is not going to be easy,” he says.
Nevertheless, consumers look for safer food, especially as the public becomes more aware of bacterial outbreaks, and farms in the past seven years have led the charge to respond.
Consumers have begun to demand safer products via their collective buying power, says Greg West, president and CEO of National Pasteurized Eggs in Lansing, Ill. West’s company, which produces pasteurized eggs in an effort to eliminate Salmonella, has seen consumer demand for its product double in the past year. And West is more than happy to supply the safer eggs—sales, he said, have skyrocketed since the Salmonella outbreaks in the 1990s and a more recent flare-up in 2006 that made national headlines.
Preventing bacterial outbreaks is a matter of reducing risk, West says. Some cases of Salmonella-related illness, he notes, could have been prevented simply by cooking them thoroughly. Unfortunately, many people don’t cook eggs completely; over-easy, poached and soft-boiled eggs are all bacterial vectors. “Why not stop the risk before it enters the supply chain?” he says. All of the company’s eggs go through a hot-water pasteurization bath. Afterward, each egg is sealed with a wax coating to prevent potential future contamination and stamped with a red circle “P” to denote that they have been pasteurized.
Other companies, however, can’t bathe their products in bacteria-killing solution as a matter of practicality. Earthbound Farm in San Juan Bautista, Calif., which lost $70 million as a result of an E. coli outbreak in its fresh spinach in 2006, began a massive safety overhaul in 2006 that incorporated vigorous bacterial testing with innovative safety methods such as UV radiation. “At the end of the day you can’t rely on government or academia,” says Earthbound Farm head of food safety, Will Daniels. “You have to have relationships with the suppliers and know the process.”
Earthbound is still perfecting its methods. At the moment the company is working with NASA to develop technology that would predict how small-scale, seasonal shifts in temperature as well as large-scale climate change influence the presence of bacteria in the soil, air and water around crops. Eventually, Daniels says, they hope to be able to adapt farming methods in accordance with temperature changes to help prevent bacterial outbreaks before they start. When the farm knows of an approaching hotter-than-usual summer season, for example, growers can increase UV radiation doses. Daniels says NASA has already identified a strong correlation between weather events and test results that are positive for bacteria in his spinach crops.
The California Strawberry Commission has made products safer not by implementing new technologies, rather they better educate farmers, says Andrew Kramer, director of grower education. Strawberries are harvested year-round, so the field is continually replete with workers; as a labor-intensive crop, strawberries mandated a people-centered approach to safety.
For example, when the company discovered that workers were taking breaks in the field rather than in designated areas to the side of the crops, it also found that food trash residue was diminishing crop quality and attracting animals to growing areas. Kramer’s team found that animals and bacteria attracted to scraps would often invade crops as well. Commission experts soon realized that gaps in communication between commissioners, growers and farmers were to blame—growers were not telling farmers about break protocol, and some weren’t even supplying chairs in dedicated eating locations. So commission experts began a series of training and education workshops in English and Spanish, and instructed growers to provide workers with portable chairs at a central location, preventing food scraps from attracting bacteria to crop sites. To tackle other field safety issues, directors of the grower education program came up with a food safety flip chart—a giant wooden how-to manual complete with diagrams and illustrations on field safety. Farm safety educators use the chart during trainings, during which they instruct workers on everything from correct hand-washing practices how to identify a diseased crop before it infects the whole field.
Kramer also leads the commission’s food safety certificate program that, via a series of five classes, has been successful at training growers and crews to harvest their crops in a way that minimizes disease outbreaks. “We’re taking knowledge about the best ways to grow a safe crop and translating that to actual practice,” Kramer says.
Farms are at risk of contamination from a number of sources, from birds flying overhead to trash farmers accidentally drop on crops. Although growers and processors may not be able to eliminate all problems, they are taking the steps toward decreasing pathogenic contamination.