Who are Food Safety's Superstars?

For more than a century, food processors have been required to ensure the safety of their products. Events of the recent past have elevated that responsibility from the shadows of quality assurance to a major focus.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

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Dane Bernard was beginning his career with the National Canners Assn. as those regulations were rolling out. Beginning in 1907, the Canners served as the industry’s principal scientific organization; it would later become the National Food Processors Assn., which was absorbed into the Grocery Manufacturers Assn. in 2007.

It took a decade before canners achieved steady state with the new regulations, Bernard recalls, and the time lag repeated in fresh meat processors in the wake of 1996’s HACCP mandate by USDA. Massive recalls that destroyed companies like Hudson Foods and Topps Meat Co. and drove Conagra out of the beef slaughter business attest to the difficulty in implementing effective controls. That history likely will be repeated with FSMA implementation, Bernard believes.

“If you have a good food safety culture, the food safety voice is heard at the production table,” he says, “but it takes time before it’s steady state.” Not until meat processors embraced product and environmental pathogen testing did food safety professionals have enough data points to effectively control invisible contaminants in their facilities.

Listeria monocytogenes in cheese in the mid-1980s and E. coli in apple juice in the mid-1990s somehow managed to surprise processors, though in hindsight they shouldn’t have.

Al Baroudi, a food scientist with a focus on technology and microbiology, was a quality assurance specialist for 98 Borden Foods dairies in the mid-'80s when he developed a HACCP-lite program that included 10-20 environmental swabs at each dairy. When news of 61 listeriosis deaths attributed to Jalisco Mexican Products’ cheese broke, “we knew exactly where it came from,” he says, because the dairy swabs already had flagged floor drains as a Listeria harborage.

Likewise, 66 illnesses and the death of a 16-month-old child from pathogenic E. coli in unpasteurized Odwalla apple juice in 1996 was predictable, Marler maintains. “Odwalla was told that its juice was unfit for the military, yet they continued selling it to pregnant women and kids,” he says. Conventional wisdom held that bacteria couldn’t survive in acidic juice; convention was proven wrong.

Quicker test results, better interventions

Technical advances provide quicker test results and greater accountability than ever before, points out Baroudi. E. coli tests that used to take a week now deliver results “within a couple of hours,” he says. Whole genome sequencing holds processors to account for illnesses that occurred years ago. A recent example is Listeria in Blue Bell ice cream: After comparing the genome fingerprint of 2015 illnesses with its DNA library, the Centers for Disease Control matched the pathogen with victims from a decade earlier.

A longtime proponent of ozonated water as an antibacterial intervention, Baroudi championed the technology at Calabasas Hills, Calif.-based Cheesecake Factory Inc. when he joined the organization 10 years ago as vice president of food safety and quality assurance. The company already had installed ozone generators at its two bakeries in the wake of a safety incident, and his advocacy resulted in deployment of ozone cleaning systems in the prep kitchens of Cheesecake Factory’s 214 restaurants.

An effective contact-surface sanitizer, ozonated water was approved by FDA for direct food contact 15 years ago. “Knowing the benefits of this technology, I wanted to make sure we had this killer step for supplies coming in our back doors,” explains Baroudi. Vendors, particularly poultry and seafood suppliers, receive additional rating points when they use the technology.

Fresh produce is one of the ready-to-eat categories that fall under FDA regulation and are receiving more scrutiny with FSMA. When romaine lettuce was implicated in December in multiple foodborne illnesses, kitchen ozone systems spared Cheesecake Factory’s restaurants. Some raw materials are packed in frozen ozonated water, providing timed release of the antioxidant during shipment.

Between ozone and PCR tests, Baroudi has leveraged his educational training and work experience into a comprehensive food safety program for his employer. His competitors can’t say the same, he believes. “All the big companies think of food safety and quality assurance as an overhead expense until they have a catastrophic event. Then food safety is Job No. 1, but by then it’s too late.”

The Jack in the Box poisonings of a quarter century ago were a seminal event in processors’ war against pathogenic E. coli. The gap between awareness and effective control, however, was measured in many years. “Ninety percent of my revenue used to come from E. coli cases,” says attorney Marler. “Now it’s close to zero.”

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