Improving Food Safety - Introductory Article
By Richard Sprenger
One of my career objectives is to contribute to improving food safety, whether as an enforcement officer, a trainer, a consultant, a food handler, an author, a government advisor or as chairman of an awarding organisation. The Highfield Food Safety Forum and I would be very interested in hearing from Forum members how they believe we can best improve food safety. As an additional incentive, we will provide a £200/1000AED Highfield credit to the author of the article that is determined to be the best/practically most useful.
Epidemiological surveillance plays a very important part in improving food safety. Investigation of food poisoning outbreaks and determining root causes are invaluable, but only when this information is readily available for the food industry, enforcement officers, trainers, auditors and consultants. Results of investigations, even if they need to be anonymised, need to be accurately reported in a timely manner so food safety practices can be modified as quickly as possible. Information provided in public health and medical journals, often several years later, is not sufficient.
As an enforcement officer investigating the surge of ‘egg-related outbreaks’ in the eighties and nineties I recall looking at every type of egg – fried, scrambled, poached and boiled. It was at least a year before the information was published identifying ‘egg products’ as the most significant vehicle, not eggs. Mayonnaise, mousse, egg sauces, pooled eggs and egg products with no-kill step should have been the focus of our attention much earlier. Eggs were the source of the problem, and it was essential that action was taken on the farms to deal with them, however, if enforcement officers and restaurants had focused on preventing cross-contamination and preventing temperature abuse of egg products then many outbreaks would have been prevented.
Even now eggs are usually reported as being the ‘vehicle’ and not egg products.
At the end of 2011, I read a UK report stating that there had been 13 outbreaks of campylobacter outbreaks involving undercooked liver pate served in food businesses. Given that there were around 40 outbreaks a year in total, at this time, where the vehicle was identified this was a very significant problem that should have been brought to the attention of enforcement officers/auditors, etc. much earlier in the year so that they could put greater emphasis on pate production during their inspections. Food safety trainers should have been advised so that they could have modified their training material. I contacted several senior food inspectors from some of the largest UK authorities and asked if they were aware of the number of outbreaks involving Campylobacter in pate and if they had modified their inspection procedures as a result. They all advised they had not. Information on safe pate production was circulated to the catering industry – but the significance of this was probably not appreciated. Very good information on lots of food safety issues is always being circulated.
To improve food safety, we need information about food poisoning outbreaks and root causes to be publicly available on a website such as the FSA as quickly as possible. If there are several outbreaks involving the same vehicle then this information should be published as soon as possible and enforcement officers should be notified so that they can check and advise food businesses regarding best practices.
One salutary note – in 1996 J Barr was linked to 21 deaths due to E. coli O157 but he wasn’t the first butcher to be involved with an outbreak of E. coli O157. Effective and timely communication about outbreaks, wherever they occur in the world will save lives.
We would be very interested in receiving information about food poisoning outbreaks and serious food complaints, or near misses that we can make available to members of the Forum, especially when the food vehicle and the root cause have been identified and recommended practices for preventing recurrence are provided.