How Modern Food Safety Systems Support Economic Growth, Public Health and Trade
During food safety month, the Food Safety Network (FSN) is releasing an eight-part blog series on different technical topics from the Food Safety Distance Learning Module, focusing on the core guiding principles of a food control system. These principles were selected based upon the internationally-accepted guidance of Codex and founded upon the work of the World Health Organization (WHO) and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
Having access to a safe food supply is vital to ensuring that the greater global community can receive the essential energy and nutrients necessary to lead healthy and fruitful lives. Further, the safety of food is key to the advancement and revolution of agriculture, which is needed for the modernization of nations’ food safety systems and for countries to efficiently participate in regional and international markets. A safe food supply is reliant upon the appropriate actions of multiple stakeholders working under diverse infrastructure, environmental and sociopolitical conditions.
With so many moving parts, it is imperative that the efforts of all involved are coordinated and share a cohesive vision to ensure that risks are mitigated and food safety incidents avoided. Yet, on average, almost two million people a day fall ill due to foodborne illnesses. While low- and middle-income populations are often disproportionately struck by foodborne illnesses, no country — regardless of its level of development or access to resources — is immune from the ever-present risks and challenges associated with food safety hazards. As research and data continue to become available, "food safety hazards are increasingly being recognized as a major public health problem worldwide, which has significant and wide-ranging socioeconomic consequences for human welfare and economic performance."
Over the past 50 years, there have been numerous large-scale food safety incidents around the globe that have served as a harsh reminder of the nature and magnitude of these consequences.
In early 1993, the Washington State Department of Health initiated an investigation into an uncommonly-high incidence of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) among children in the Seattle area. The investigation traced the source of the children's illness back to E. coli O157:H7 bacteria. The commonality found amongst all the affected children was that they had consumed hamburgers at their local Jack in the Box, a fast-food chain restaurant.
Over the next several weeks following those initial reports, Nevada, Idaho and California also identified several cases of E.coli infection amongst their citizens that could be traced back to a Jack in the Box restaurant. The outbreak spanned four states, and was linked to 73 different Jack in the Box locations. The E.coli bacteria sickened over 700 individuals, leading to 171 hospitalizations and, ultimately, four deaths.
While the investigation was able to identify five slaughterhouses within the United States and Canada as potential origins of the bacteria, it was never able to pinpoint the exact source of the contaminated hamburger patties. It was not until later that further investigation would reveal that the parent company of Jack in the Box, Foodmaker Inc., had received warnings from existing employees and local health departments that their hamburger patties were not being cooked to the appropriate temperature. However, the company had determined that the required 155 degrees was not suitable for the patties and left them too tough for consumption. This culinary choice would have a devastating impact on public health as well as serving as a catalyst for change regarding food safety.
The global fight against foodborne illness and food-related risks is complex because there are multiple factors that contribute to their prevalence and impact. However, as food safety incident data and burden of disease reports have been made available, the information highlights a common need for interventions that improve food control and help coordinate efforts throughout the food chain continuum. Scientists and researchers argue that much of the burden from unsafe food is avoidable. By incorporating practical behaviors and infrastructure changes along the food production continuum, countries can begin transitioning their nation’s food control system from one that is reactive to one that is proactive.
Modernization of food safety regulatory systems involves identifying and mitigating risks and vulnerabilities in a country’s supply chain. Transforming a country’s food safety system from one that is reactive (driven by response to foodborne illness) to a system of prevention is key to earning consumer confidence and reducing obstacles to local, national and international trade. At its core, a nation’s food safety control system should be created with the consumer in mind. From its initial design to its implementation and overall maintenance, the primary goal of a country’s food safety system is to ensure safe food for all consumers. To achieve this, measures need to be established that adequately control risk along the entirety of the food chain. Countries must be equipped with adequate food safety laws, supported by technical and administrative infrastructure, that assure they will be able to establish and maintain science-based food safety systems that protect public health and enhance trade prospects. Countries must also have food safety systems that are equipped to ensure that imported food is safe for consumption. Efforts can be supported by the use of international standards such as those of the Codex Alimentarius. Recent modernization of food safety systems, moving from reliance on surveillance-based systems to prevention-based systems, has greatly enhanced capabilities to produce and ensure safe food.
Investing in a safe and secure food supply involves more than just providing financial resources; it also includes education and outreach efforts that seek to build knowledge and understanding around the concept of effective food safety management. Food safety issues and challenges evolve not only with the level of economic development and food system transformation, but also as measures that are taken to ensure that food safety management capacity changes to keep up with emerging hazards.
By developing a proactive strategy and prioritizing the problems and measures needing attention, countries can diminish losses resulting from the burden of foodborne illness and, ultimately, minimize disruptions to stakeholder livelihoods, markets and the country's overall economy. While the modernization journey and resulting food safety regulatory system may look different for every country, if fostered appropriately, modernization can achieve consumer health protection, support trade and ensure a secure food supply.
Want to learn more about concepts within food safety? Check out our free, self-paced online Food Safety Distance Learning Module, which explores the history of the United States food safety system, the value of a modern food safety system, all of the core principles of a national food control system and concludes with a case study that allows learners to walk through a fictional country’s journey to modernize their food safety system. Visit spscourses.com today to sign up for a free account and access this module and so much more! Visit the FSN home page to learn more.