Nearly two-thirds of food-processing executives expect the number of food-safety claims in the industry to continue rising over the next year, according a survey of 100 agribusiness leaders by the law firm Lathrop GPM LLP. Six in 10 say they have seen an increase in claims since the pandemic began.
In terms of the most concerning food safety risks, 67% cite changes in food production and technology, followed by the threat of foodborne illness (59%) and consumer education (45%). That said, a clear majority of executives — 72% — feel at least somewhat prepared to handle a food safety crisis.
- Even before the pandemic, foodborne illness outbreaks were on the rise, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But more recently, the conclusion of an investigation into a 2020 foodborne illness outbreak linked to red onions and a massive recall of frozen prepared chicken by Tyson has amplified awareness over the issue.
Each year, an estimated 48 million people get sick from foodborne illnesses in the United States each year, with 3,000 deaths, according to the CDC. Produce is responsible for nearly half of illnesses, with meat and poultry tied to most of the fatal infections, the agency has found.
Within the past two years, the United States has witnessed several recalls tied to both segments. Last July, bagged salad mix was tied to more than 700 cases of cyclospora infections. Contaminated red onions were linked to more than 1,600 cases of foodborne illness in the U.S. and Canada during August 2020. Investigators ultimately surmised that contaminated irrigation water was likely responsible because of the many different strains of salmonella found in a field where the onions were grown.
And more recently, Tyson Foods recalled nearly 9 million pounds of frozen, fully cooked chicken that may have been contaminated with listeria. Investigators have linked three listeriosis illnesses, including one death, to the product.
This makes the confidence of food processors surveyed by Lathrop noteworthy. Nearly three-quarters (72%) said they were highly confident in their company's food-safety standards. About one-third (34%) described their confidence level as falling between nine and 10 on a scale of one to 10, while 38% described their confidence level as a seven or eight. Only 9% described their confidence level as falling somewhere between one and four.
In terms of how they are protecting themselves from risk, roughly three-quarters have established internal best practices and are training their employees, while two-thirds of executives are reviewing their compliance against local, state and federal regulations.
At the same time, a sizable share of the executives are not confident in the existing standards. Nearly three in 10 were concerned about a lack of uniformity in national standards, and 25% cited implementation of their own private standards as one of their biggest safety risks.
Food producers have been putting more stringent internal safety measures in place to comply with the Food Safety Modernization Act. The law was designed to switch the existing U.S. food safety system from a reactive stance to a more prevention-focused program, and includes guidance for manufacturers, importers and produce operations. Many operations should already be FSMA compliant and working with federal and state regulators to ensure safety, and others are working toward their operations' compliance deadlines.
In addition to FSMA, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration put out its New Era of Smarter Food Safety Blueprint last year — a 10-year plan for the department and the food industry to use more technology-enabled tools to reduce the number of foodborne illnesses. In a recent webinar, Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response Frank Yiannas identified digital information systems as an attractive way to enhance compliance monitoring without overburdening food processors.
The confidence in food safety standards may also be reinforced by what some have thought will be a more proactive regulatory stance in the FDA under President Joe Biden. In an April webinar by the Dykema law firm about what to expect from the new administration in terms of food safety, attorney Mark Mansour said there were far fewer inspections and citations and less regulatory activity in general during the Trump administration. The general feeling among the industry, he said, is that more stringent regulation is coming now — and it's welcomed.
"I think on the whole, most companies that I work with would prefer a regulatory system that works well, that is fair, and that gives the public confidence that the food supply is safe and the food regulation is effective and predictable," Mansour said.
Megan Poinski contributed to this story.