Buying With Security

As trade and consumer buyers around the world look at the American market, they have lately heard a great deal about food safety issues. We have had food safety issues on spinach, ground beef, and frozen foods, among others.

If you want to understand the food safety problems in America, you best look at the attacks on America of September 11, 2001.

The attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and on the Pentagon in Virginia sensitized America to the notion that some fanatics in the world want to hurt America and Americans. The country responded in many ways both diplomatic and military. It also responded with a range of domestic activities — from forming a new Department of Homeland Security to instituting new airport security regulations — to reduce the likelihood of an attack and to mitigate the effects of an attack.

One of the areas the government focused on was the possibility that the food supply might be used by terrorists to attack Americans. To reduce the likelihood that such an effort would succeed, our system to identify outbreaks of foodborne illness — particularly a system known as PulseNet — has been significantly strengthened.

As a result, foodborne illnesses that might have been dismissed years ago as the  “24-hour flu” or recognized as food poisoning but without a common cause are now tracked across the whole country and identified as outbreaks of foodborne illness.

This is why comparative food safety claims across national borders are inherently suspect. No country in the world has a nationwide bulletin system like PulseNet, so no country’s foodborne illness outbreak statistics are comparable to those of the USA.

When an individual gets sick and foodborne illness seems likely, if he is ill enough to go to the doctor or the hospital, he is given a survey that inquires where and what he has eaten over the last few days.

Until very recently, almost all foodborne illness cases were identified in the context of major gatherings — conventions, a big charity dinner, a wedding, etc. The reason for this is that only these large events typically provided the critical mass necessary for public health authorities to get back enough surveys in one place to identify the common source of an outbreak. In other words, in the context of a banquet, public health authorities could note that everyone who went to the hospital ate at the big hotel in town the previous evening.

On the other hand, nationally distributed product rarely produced sufficient survey responses to identify a source. After all, if people are healthy with strong immune systems, exposure to a pathogen may give them a bad stomach ache, but they will probably recover and never see a doctor or hospital. This means only the largest outbreaks would produce enough illness that becomes known to public health authorities to identify a shared cause.

This is especially because food, particularly unbranded food such as loose greens or fresh meat, is a common factor. So whereas a report that consumers attended the same wedding is a very distinctive factor, the fact that a consumer had a salad or a hamburger is much less so.

So prior to September 11, 2001, if two or three people got sick in New York state, another two or three in California and another two or three in Illinois, these disparate cases located in distant places would probably never have been tied together as being caused by a particular brand of, say, spinach.

Today, however, the technology is so much better and the PulseNet system so much stronger that the same few illnesses, which years ago would have seemed isolated and unattributed events, will now be linked together as DNA from stool samples showing a common “Fingerprint” will be posted to the PulseNet system.

The comeuppance is a kind of irony, for as our food in the United States gets safer, the number of outbreaks increases.

Of course, this increase in outbreak frequency has led the food industry to redouble its efforts to avoid outbreaks by producing safer food. For example, after the spinach outbreak of late 2006, the California leafy greens industry adopted a Marketing Agreement, which virtually all the handlers have signed, obligating them to follow new and tougher metrics in growing leafy greens.

What all this means for those looking to buy food and ag products from the United States is simple: The headlines are deceptive; U.S. food and ag products are safer than ever.

Feel free to ask your suppliers for substantiation of their food safety programs. All manufacturers should have a HACCP — short for Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point — plan to show you. Farmers should be able to share their Good Agricultural Practices documents and also will frequently have third-party audits.

If you study these documents you will find them to be world class. So you can buy from the United States with ease of mind. The country is not only the source of a wide variety of delicious foods, it is also the home of the toughest food safety monitoring system in the world. That means you can buy with security.