"When a food product recall occurs, the entire food industry is held accountable for it, not just the offending company," said our Midwestern meat processor. "When Toyota had their issues with speed control, only Toyota was on the firing line, not all the rest of the auto makers."
"In recent years, 'processed foods' have been the subject of growing negative perceptions in terms of their nutritional value and impact on health, as well as their safety," says a report from the International Food Information Council (IFIC, www.foodinsight.org). "However, there are many safe, high-quality, and nutritious processed foods, and in many cases, processing can help make our food safer and more nutritious."
"People don't realize food processing is thousands of years old," says IFT's Bowman. "They don't recognize what it takes to get food from the farm to their fork. There's a reason we pasteurize milk and cook meats" -- and increase shelf-life and otherwise preserve foods.
SOLUTION: First of all, keep on processing. The food industry needs to regain the upper hand that processing is, first and foremost, a way to make food safe.
"As a communicator, you can help share the facts and clear up misinformation about modern food production, food processing and processed foods," says IFIC. Its "Understanding our Food" toolkit offers processors several resources for communicating with consumers and clients. Primarily it helps define processed foods, describes the scope of foods and products they include and provides information about the many benefits of food processing that often are overlooked.
But because the primary inputs are created outdoors and in dirt, there probably always will be contamination incidents. "The best way to deal with a food safety issue is to be as transparent [there's that word again] as possible," says Chicago consultant Martinez. "Acknowledge the problem, show people the steps you're taking to fit it and to prevent it from ever happening again. Bad things happen to good companies, and people will forgive you if you're perceived as honest and trying to do the right thing"
A classic example we've chronicled in the past was a 2008 listeria outbreak stemming from a Maple Leaf Foods plant. A hard-to-clean slicing machine sent up to 1.4 million lbs. of contaminated deli meats to restaurants, hospitals, nursing homes and retail and deli counters.
The outbreak took possibly 22 lives, cost tens of millions of dollars and led to intense organizational soul-searching at Maple Leaf. The company emerged with a very public pledge to instill a "culture of food safety" that commits the company, among other things, to being a "global leader in food safety" and to "openly sharing our knowledge with industry, government and consumers." (See www.FoodProcessing.com/articles/2010/foodsafety-mapleleaf.html).
Two key elements are aggressive environmental testing and an aggressive response to every positive result, according to Randy Huffman, a high-profile food safety expert who was hired in the wake of the outbreak as the company's chief food safety officer, reporting directly to the CEO. "That," he says, "is where the rubber really hits the road."
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