In early May, for example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the issuance of new performance standards for the presence of the pathogens Campylobacter and Salmonella on raw poultry. Within two years under the new standards, the U.S.D.A. said, 39,000 illnesses will be avoided that are caused by Campylobacter and 26,000 fewer illnesses will occur due to Salmonella contamination.
Left out of the U.S.D.A.’s announcement was any recognition of the tremendous progress that has been made during the past 13 years to reduce the incidence of Salmonella on fresh chicken in the United States. In 1996 the U.S.D.A. issued the results of a baseline survey of fresh chicken in the United States and found 20% of the raw product sampled was contaminated with the pathogen. In 2009, the Department conducted a similar baseline survey and found the rate of contamination had dropped to 7.1%.
Such a lack of context has consequences. As numerous surveys have shown during the past few years, food safety remains a concern for many consumers despite the strides being made to ensure product safety. High profile foodborne illness outbreaks and recalls of products such as bagged salads, peanut paste and ground beef have negatively impacted public opinion, but such occurrences remain the exception rather than the rule. One only has to look at the national production data to understand the level of safety built into all foods and beverages.
What may seem to be a rise in food safety incidents is in reality a sign of progress. New testing technologies combined with a more robust network of public health officers at the federal, state and municipal levels all combine to further improve what is an already very efficient consumer protection effort.
While industry and government attention must be paid to the continuous improvement of food safety efforts, it is essential to look at what is happening elsewhere to protect the gains made in ensuring food and beverage safety.
The sale of unpasteurized milk in some states has raised the concern of many executives working in the milk processing industry. Federal law prohibits the interstate sale of “raw” milk but allows states the leeway to decide whether to allow sales within their borders. Currently, 28 states allow the sale of raw milk.
As the National Milk Producers’ Federation, a trade association representing milk producers, has rightly noted, it is ironic that at the same time Congress is attempting to forge and pass major food safety legislation to further protect consumers from foodborne illnesses, some states are going in the opposite direction. The N.M.P.F., along with other dairy industry representatives, are concerned, because any foodborne illness outbreaks associated with raw milk may reflect badly on the industry as a whole.
The new performance standards introduced by the U.S.D.A. that poultry processors must meet reflect all that is positive about food safety. It is the concept of continuous improvement in action and it provides an objective, scientific benchmark companies may use to further enhance their food safety programs.
To counter expanding consumer concerns about food safety, it is advisable to put the industry’s achievements into context. Further reducing the incidence of pathogens must remain a priority, but celebrating the reductions that have been achieved is a sign of continual progress.