Nearly a decade ago the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) had to shutter operations after corporate malfeasance led to one of the most massive and lethal food-borne contamination cases in U.S. history. A nationwide outbreak of Salmonella-contaminated peanut products killed at least nine people and sickened thousands, ultimately bankrupting the company and leading to numerous lawsuits and criminal charges against top officials for knowingly shipping tainted food.
The outbreak caused the most extensive food recall in U.S. history at the time, forcing more than 360 companies to recall more than 3,900 peanut products across 46 states. The recall didn’t just impact consumers on the back end. Schools had to pull tainted lunch products. Food banks had to discard thousands of pounds of food intended for families in need. FEMA had to recall emergency meals sent in the wake of an ice storm. And losses to the U.S. peanut industry exceeded a billion dollars.
The PCA recall contributed significantly to the creation of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), signed into law by President Obama in 2011. Its purpose was to ensure the safety of the U.S. food supply by shifting the focus to preventing outbreaks rather than reacting to them. The law requires that companies implement a food defense program, including practices to prevent hazards that may be introduced as part of the manufacturing or packaging process.
The PCA case should be a sobering lesson for food producers on the folly of putting corporate profits over public safety. If manufacturers don’t pay sufficient attention to their food safety programs, the consequences could be severe, particularly when it involves life-threatening toxins and food allergens.
Yet despite the PCA outcome and the advent of the FSMA, food safety in the U.S. continues to exhibit worrisome trends. The current outbreak of E. Coli-contaminated Romaine lettuce has hit 19 states and sickened over 84 people is a chilling example. More than 48 million Americans get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die due to foodborne illnesses each year. And there has been no significant decline in food-related illnesses since 2006. A five-year review of our quarterly Stericycle Recall Index revealed that the food and beverage industry experienced the most dramatic spike in units recalled. Food products recalled by the FDA skyrocketed 92.7 percent since 2012, and recalled pounds of food regulated by USDA, which largely oversees meat production, jumped 83.4 percent in the same period.
Technological improvements in food testing combined with factory farming and growing automation in food production were major drivers of the increases. Undeclared food allergens and bacterial contamination such as salmonella and listeria were the most consistent culprits that only worsened over the years. This year saw for the first time a food recall triggered by Cyclospora cayetanensis, a microscopic parasite present in fecal-contaminated food that causes severe intestinal illness, as well.
Data from both the USDA and the FDA show food product recalls increased significantly from 2004 through 2013, with recalls due to undeclared allergens nearly doubling in the decade. Salmonella, listeria and other contaminants have become increasingly prevalent in recent years.
But there are hopeful trends as well. Food safety reforms have pushed the food & beverage industry toward a wider adoption of digital technologies to monitor and protect the food supply. Jeff Van Pelt, principle of data technology firm OSIsoft, wrote in a FoodDive OpEd:
FSMA is changing the food industry, but not in a way that one might think. Tighter regulations have typically meant more work, but FSMA regulations are pushing the food industry toward broader digital transformation. Now, to ensure compliance while still optimizing production, organizations have turned to operational data, and the data have the potential to change the food industry.
Traceability in the food supply chain is improving as well. Some food producers are looking to technologies like blockchain to improve the integrity and monitoring of food safety from factories to store shelves.
Fast and more reliable food testing methods that detect the presence of toxins, allergens and foreign materials are more readily available. Companies are investing more in training programs for food safety best practices. And perhaps most importantly, corporate cultures have changed in the wake of the PCA outbreak. Senior management at more and more food producers are placing a stronger emphasis on developing a food safety culture around manufacturing best practices and standards.
Regardless of what solutions food producers adopt, the threat of contamination or other food safety issues will always be present no matter how diligent the company may be. That’s why it’s critical to develop and test a recall plan. The FSMA is a good source for guidelines. It can help ensure that companies determine their approach to consumer notification, communications with regulatory bodies and other stakeholders, the logistics of removing the affected product from the marketplace, and other essential components of recall execution, in advance of a recall situation.
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