Is a Food Safety Culture Possible?

In a presentation at a food safety conference recently, then-acting FDA Commissioner Stephen Ostroff observed that for the new food safety law to succeed, there needed to be a “food safety culture” throughout the global food chain.

Dr. Ostroff didn’t define what that culture was, but his meaning was clear: insuring a safe food supply is as much a matter of commitment and mind-set as it is regulations and procedures.

Now, with the new law largely in effect, do the people who harvest, manufacture, process, ship, sell and consume food possess a sensibility – a culture – in which safe food is a paramount concern?

food inspectorsThe short answer is that we will find out over time. There are promising initial trends. The Food Safety Modernization Act, better known as FSMA, has established a regulatory framework in which the prevention of food contamination along the supply chain is the dominant priority for the broad food industry. Also, advances in microbiology and genome sequencing are making it possible to quickly limit the spread of food-borne illnesses, saving untold number of people from serious illness or death

Those very same food consumers — families and households who enjoy the boundless productivity and quality of food products – are a big problem, perhaps the toughest challenge of all. Can individual consumers and by extension all consumers adopt a safe food culture? In a world in which a third of all food produced is thrown away every year, in part because they don’t understand the often confusing “best by” labels, it is clear that a prevailing awareness of food safety in the kitchen is at this point an aspirational goal.

A valid comparison is the transition in this country to a non-smoking environment. Smoking was a habit, but also an accepted social activity. To many, it was a coming-of-age ritual. Yet overtime, spurred by government research, the dangers of smoking became all too apparent, and the number of those who smokes began to gradually decline.

It was proven that smoking can kill. So, too, can food contamination. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimated in 2016 that each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases.

A brief overview of food safety-related issues shows how far we have come as a nation, and how still far we need to go in creating a safe food culture.

We know a great deal more about the causes of food contamination, how it spreads and how to contain outbreaks. Advances in microbiology and genetics enable epidemiologists and food safety inspectors to better track not only what causes food contamination outbreaks, but also how they spread.

We also are gaining new understanding of how to encourage safe food habits through research in the field of behavioral science – the discipline that examines why people act the way they do. For example, research over many years shows that people by and large learn to change their habits and preconceived notions from others – call them authority figures — whom they trust. A good example is the man in the white coat phenomenon: research reveals a behavioral trait called “enclothed cognition,” which is the tendency of people to more likely believe and trust those who wear symbolic clothing – the white coat of the scientist or doctor, or the officer in military garb.

How does this relate to food safety culture? One intriguing possibility is the tendency of people to adapt the behavior of others in certain situations, rather than exercising their own independent judgment. On the battlefield, for example, research has shown that what motivates soldiers to risk their live is the desire not to let down those fighting beside them. Firefighters are celebrated the world over for their incredible level of shared sacrifice. Could a desire to adopt safe food habits because others are doing so a possibility?

Listeria monocytogenes bacteria,  Courtesy James Archer



We are a long way from that ideal, clearly. After all, old habits die hard. And other research is not encouraging. Human error is widely accepted as perhaps the leading cause of serious unplanned events, which food-borne illness outbreaks surely are. Moreover, a dignificant percentage of food-related illness happens in the home via cross-contamination or insufficient temperature controls for perishables. Yet bringing a food safety consciousness into the home is an especially daunting task. Industry trade associations such as the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers of America have spearheaded food safety information campaigns for decades but follow-up research indicates that the camapigns have had limited durable impact. Food retailers like Publix and Walmart are attempting to encourage a food safety culture in the home using gift cards and other incentives.

Yet there are also encouraging signs. Microbiology is a young science dating back to just the 1870s. Identified foodborne illness culprits, including Listeria, ecoli, norvoviruses and salmonella, weren’t even mentioned in school textbooks as recently as 50 years ago. The precursor of FSMA, the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) program, was developed for the NASA space program only in the 1960s and gradually spread to the food industry. The industry voluntary initiative on food safety, the GFSI, was assembled only within the past six years.

Scientific progress in food safety certainly is accelerating. Using sophisticated genome sequencing techniques, Listeria outbreaks can be detected when as few as two people have gotten sick, according to the CDC. The technique can isolate the precise cause of contamination, giving manufacturers, shippers and retailers (not to mention consumers) a head start in quarantining suspect product more quickly, thus lessening the chances of a serious public health crisis.

Where does this leave the nation and the safety of our now global food supply? FSMA holds the promise of substantially reducing food contamination, thus making our food safer. Its emphasis on prevention seems exactly right in emphasizing the food industry’s critical participation in advancing controls that reduce the chances of infection in the first place.

The concern now is that this progressive trend might be delayed or stopped altogether. Opposition to government oversight remains a hot political issue and, so far at least, it appears that the Trump Administration and Congress are looking for ways to lift burdensome government regulations, as FSMA surely is. It’s also true that food safety protocols are expensive and time-consuming. These are typically not issues for large manufacturers. But what of the small-scale processors; will they be able to afford the costs of maintaining a food safety regimen? Can plant managers instill in production line employees the critical necessity of the proper maintenance of machinery to avoid cross-contamination accidents? At this point, with FSMA still in its fledgling stage, it’s too soon to tell.

One thing is certain, however. The estimated 2,700 – 3,000 deaths each year of hundreds of consumers, and the severe illnesses others suffer, from eating dangerously contaminated food, should offer sufficient incentive to get food safety ingrained into the minds and actions of everyone who produces food and eats to live.

That ought to be an accepted benefit whether anyone happens to be wearing a white coat or not.

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