SUPPLY CHAIN RESILIENCY AND TRANSPARENCY
In 2017, we saw many advances in food traceability and safety, but also reminders that continued improvement and attention is very much warranted, as our food supply remains vulnerable to disease outbreaks and food fraud. With the continued reliance on a limited number of major suppliers and ingredients, the resiliency of the food supply remains a challenge for the food industry.
An important food safety study by researchers at Penn State University found that over half of all food poisoning cases come from restaurant-prepared food. They also looked at states and cities with employee-favorable sick-leave laws and found that food safety increases when foodservice workers are paid not to work when sick. The work calls into focus the challenges in the quick-service food arena, and namely the food poisoning cases at Chipotle, which appeared again in 2017, and remind us that food safety requires a holistic consideration of the food preparation environment. This holistic approach improves the resiliency of the food supply chain, enabling restaurants to more quickly and easily recover from supply chain shocks.
Some challenges have arisen from changes in inspection and regulation. For instance, the USDA announced in December that it has terminated the advisory committee on food safety and nutrition and is reconsidering the zero tolerance of listeria in food safety testing. And we are reminded that it is important to remain focused on food safety, as a new stubborn strain of salmonella was detected and suspected as tied to the rise in salmonella illness cases reported in Europe.
Additionally, the complexity and vulnerability of our food supply was shown in a case in which 3.7 million pounds of breaded meat at multiple food processors had to be recalled, as the breadcrumb supplier used milk and did not disclose it, triggering an allergy violation in the labeling. The sellers of the meat reported difficulty in finding the exact source of the milk, showing that food traceability of critical ingredients and allergens is still challenging. General Mills pulled over 10 million pounds of flour last June because of a multi-state E. coli outbreak. Research on the recalled flour by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that raw flour has an increased risk of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli bacteria (STEC), requiring a revisiting of popular foods like raw cookie dough, for instance. This level of analysis was made possible by whole genome sequencing, underscoring that advances in food safety and traceability often require very detailed laboratory work.
Food fraud continues to be a major issue, and the past year brought more cases to light. The Hellenic Food Authority caught a Greek family business attempting to sell olive oil cut with sunflower oil as extra-virgin olive oil. Over 17 tons of adulterated olive oil were seized. Upon further analysis, it appeared that a dye was also used to tint the oil blend, introducing a carcinogen present in the dye into the food supply, all in the name of ill-gotten profits. This year, a study on sustainable seafood by Arlin Wasserman of Changing Tastes and Dr. Russell Walker of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University found that seafood fraud costs U.S. consumers and consumer-facing businesses more than $10 billion a year in overpayment by consumers.
On the bright side, food safety has garnered important advances through lawsuits, setting new precedents. A U.S. judge sentenced the executives of Quality Egg LLC to prison for knowingly selling expired eggs and attempting to bribe a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspector to approve bad eggs. The sale of the bad eggs caused over 56,000 cases of illness, including some serious and permanent. This is a good sign that courts are taking food fraud and food safety seriously.
We also see that food origin and food treatment matter to people and have driven new laws. A new ordinance passed in San Francisco in October requires retailers of raw meat and poultry to report the use of any antibiotics used in their production. The good news is that public interest and governmental response to this concern about antibiotics has never been higher, and demand for information about our food is increasing.
However, major meat producers and retailers signaled that the necessary information is not systematically in place for the clear reporting of antibiotic presence in meat and poultry, triggering a new debate on the value and cost of such reporting.
In more positive news, increasingly, technology is providing the much-needed capability of better monitoring our food supply. Being able to better identify issues early on can improve the resiliency of our food supply, providing more lead time to adjust and better contain any problems. Researchers used Twitter to map foodborne illnesses in St. Louis with success. A novel website, iwaspoisoned.com, allows people to report foodborne illness so that outbreaks can be resolved more quickly and with less impact to health. Verizon has developed a network of sensors, using the Internet of Things (IoT) to track and confirm unbroken cold storage of perishable food for clients. A consortium including Dole, Driscoll’s, Golden State Foods, Kroger, McCormick and Company, McLane Company, Nestlé, Tyson Foods, Unilever, and Walmart are working with IBM to identify new areas where the global supply chain can benefit from block chain technology, which leverages community confirmation for tracking and verification. The focus is to increase food traceability and reduce health risks to the public.
In the near future, we should expect more well-trained professionals to be available to study the problems of food safety and food fraud. In particular, Arizona University has launched a new degree program in food safety to go after the $15.6 billion in economic loss caused from foodborne illnesses in the U.S. each year. Codex Alimentarius (the world food code) committed to undertaking a new international effort to define the scope and reach of Food Fraud, Food Integrity, Food Authenticity, and related terms for the purposes of making food more protected from fraud through increased definition, measurement, and traceability.
Food products over the past year show widespread economic fraud and misrepresentation, as well as advances in removing human antibiotics. Products are now measured in new and powerful ways with social media and technology such as IoT and block chain, though still difficult to trace in detail and subject to increasing governmental and customer demands about sourcing and treatment information. These features suggest that food traceability is a growing priority for consumers, regulators, preparers, and food producers.
Food supply chains remain especially vulnerable to fraud and contamination. Advances in technology should help track food from source to consumer and more quickly manage foodborne illnesses as they arise. Making more information available to consumers about food and its sourcing, processing, and treatment is more important than ever.
- Foodborne illnesses are highly tied to restaurant food preparation and foodservice worker illness. Programs to prevent foodservice workers from working when ill should be in place.
- Food fraud is rampant. At its core is the desire of a food processor or seller for economic gain by lying and cheating customers. Social media, technology, and customer reporting will continue to bring more food fraud to light.
- Consumers, governments, and honest food producers continue to demand more transparency in food reporting, signaling growing attention to the nature of our food supply.