Food safety: the industry must adapt to combat outbreaks

The spectre of foodborne illness looms again following a recent outbreak of cyclosporasis in Illinois and Iowa, reports Rosa Thomas

Salads containing cyclospora may have unwittingly been the order of the day at McDonald’s this summer, with the chain blamed for a recent outbreak of the parasitic illness in locations in Illinois and Iowa, US. While there is no definitive proof that McDonald’s are responsible, the chain declared, in a statement issued on 13 July that it would err on the side of caution and voluntarily retract their lettuce blend from roughly 3,000 restaurants located in the Midwest.

This outbreak is not anomalous. In 2015 E. Coli, Salmonella and Norovirus outbreaks in Chipotle saw 43 restaurants temporarily closed down in Washington and Oregon. More recently in April of this year health officials investigated Panera Bread as a source of E. coli.

Not only are outbreaks a regular occurrence it is likely they are more common than we realise. Thirty-one pathogens are known to cause foodborne illness and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate 48 million people in the US are affected by foodborne illness annually. But even CDC acknowledges that foodborne illnesses are difficult to track.

Of every twenty-nine people made sick by salmonella outbreaks it is estimated just one will be formally diagnosed. Even simple dishes contain a vast number of ingredients making it very difficult to observe a common cause of illness. So the outbreaks that are picked up on are the most dangerous and the most difficult to combat.

A serious challenge

Foodborne outbreaks are a serious threat to public health and a serious challenge for the foodservice industry. Outbreaks have a massive effect on business even if their impact is localised and dealt with quickly. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that foodborne illness cost the US economy between $10-83 billion per year.

Outbreaks can costs restaurants between 10 to 5,790% of what they spend on marketing every year. Meaning, as foodservice consultant and FCSI senior associate Laura Lentz of Culinary Advisors, highlights, outbreaks can result in “your whole restaurant going down because of one issue, because of one small problem.”

Understanding and investing in food borne illness prevention is therefore not just social good, it’s a business necessity.

The majority of reported health violations are a product of human error. But the most dangerous health problems come from problems within the supply chain. In our connected world supply chains, once facilitating regional transfers of produce, now frequently span the globe. And the complexity of these supply chains can only grow as our tastes and food become more adventurous and diverse. Infected food can now spread across large regions at great speeds. Furthermore, the global nature of supply chains means that contaminated foods are increasingly difficult to recall.

So if the source of food borne illness is so vast and nebulous how can individual restaurants and chains overcome these obstacles? Whilst supply chains pose a significant problem poor restaurant practices are undoubtedly responsible for smaller outbreaks. Lentz points to several things designers and operators can do to ensure good practice within kitchens.

First, managers should give good health practices the time and money they deserve. “Most restaurant codes just require that one individual in the restaurant have a serve safe certification and my advice would be that managers get as many people aware and certified as possible”.

Designers should also prioritise health concerns, especially since those funding new restaurants often do not come from a culinary background and are not led by an in depth understanding of health concerns.

Careful monitoring

Furthermore, the supply chain is not black box. Restaurants, especially big chains with significant purchasing power, are often able to effect the practices of suppliers and ensure careful monitoring. According to Lentz, “good food safety programmes are all about proper tracking and monitoring.”

Good tracking allows the source of existing problem to be identified and can highlight where problems in the supply chain might arise in future. And our ability to monitor these chains is growing. In 2012 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) set up the whole genome-sequencing network called ‘Genome Trackr’ to share genomic and geographic data from foodborne pathogens. The network has become a wealth of data allowing the source of foodborne illness to be quickly identified. As our supply chains become more complex our ability to monitor pathogens becomes faster, smarter and more sophisticated.

Outbreaks such as those in McDonald’s always create panic and it is easy to see the future of foodborne illness as an increasingly frightening one. But it is important to remember, foodborne illness is not on the rise, we have simply got better and finding and categorising it.

Outbreaks are a challenge for the food industry but with the appropriate focus on good practice and willingness to use new technology it is certainly one that can be overcome.

Rosa Thomas




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