Historically on top of food safety matters, the dairy industry rides out the latest recall as Washington debates how to fix the system.

For years, dairy processors – for whom quality assurance is Job One – have operated mostly under the radar in terms of food safety issues. In fact, while several segments of the food industry have had to bounce back from placing tainted products on store shelves, the dairy industry has attracted relatively little attention.

But what happens when someone else’s food safety mess becomes your problem? Unfortunately for many dairy manufacturers, it puts them squarely on the public’s radar screen.

In January, 388 cases of salmonella in 42 states were reported to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which traced them to products made by Georgia-based Peanut Corp. of America. About a dozen deaths have been reported in connection with the tainted peanut ingredients.

As of press time, more than 115 ice cream brands had been impacted, thus forcing recalls and posing questions to dairy manufacturers.

“There were several dairy products recalled during the peanut-associated outbreak. Why?” asks Michael Payne, program director of California Dairy Quality Assurance Program and outreach program coordinator of Western Institute of Food Safety and Security in Davis, Calif. “Because peanut butter was added after pasteurization with no further treatment. [Ice cream companies] trusted that the peanut butter was OK.”

While ice cream makers trusted companies like PCA, the public isn’t as confident. Within a week after initial reports, the FDA initiated inspections and collected samples in order to locate the culprit. But recent surveys suggest that, for the American public, one week isn’t quite quick enough, especially since PCA allegedly has been distributing tainted peanut products since 2007.

According to a study conducted by the Harvard Opinion Research Program at the Harvard School of Public Health, 67% of Americans expressed some or little confidence in food manufacturers and 62% in the government’s inspection systems.

“The results suggest that all those involved in the food safety system need to act quickly to fix the problems and increase public confidence,” says Robert Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health.

However, many consumers don’t understand the implications behind the product recalls. The study found that 25%, or one in four, of those interviewed mistakenly believed that the recall involved branded jars of peanut butter sold at the retail level, rather than industrial peanut butter and other peanut-based ingredients. And only 27% were aware that several other products containing peanuts, such as ice cream, were affected by the recall.  

To bring order to a situation that has gone astray, the FDA is attempting to become more in tune with how certain companies are running their business. Further, the agency is working with Congress – which has its own ideas to reform the process – to define the best way to structure food safety regulations.

“FDA believes that mandatory recall authority, records access, authority for preventative controls and more frequent food facility registrations would each help in keeping the U.S. food supply safe,” an FDA spokesperson says.

Of course, Capitol Hill is getting involved, as lawmakers aim to placate concerned citizens by bringing new power to the rules of recalls and inspection records.

U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) have proposed the FDA Safety Modernization Act, one of several bills created in response to ongoing food safety issues. The act, designed to create a separate food agency to better monitor food processing facilities, taps into the $1 billion fund offered by President Barack Obama.

“Over the last year, we’ve seen major recalls of peanut butter spiked with salmonella, spinach laced with E. coli and chili loaded with botulism,” Durbin says. “These are not isolated incidents, and are the result of an outdated, underfunded and overwhelmed food safety system.”

While some major food industry players like Kraft and Archer Daniels Midland are on board with the act, many dairy processors say the cost of creating a separate food safety entity could eat up most of the funds allocated towards improving the quality of the FDA’s operations.

“Melamine and other food safety scares are generating lots of legislative proposals to ‘fix’ the Food and Drug Administration,” Connie Tipton, president and chief executive officer of the Washington, D.C.-based International Dairy Foods Association, said in her address at Dairy Forum 2009 in January. “The old quip, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ comes to mind. These bills all aim to protect consumers, and we appreciate those good intentions. But what many proponents of this proposed legislation fail to recognize is that food safety is already a number-one priority in this industry, and the current inspection system just isn’t broken as some apparently believe.

“Absolutely, there are areas where the efficiency of food inspection can be improved, and we’re trying to get Congress to recognize and address these areas. Unfortunately, many of the legislative proposals simply add layers of redundant inspections and check points, with mandatory recall authority and user fees and a bunch of other bells and whistles the industry is expected to pay for. Again, more costs and more government involvement in your business, not necessarily with commensurate return on investment.”

Meanwhile, Scott Faber, vice president of federal affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Washington, D.C., says: “The food industry agrees that FDA needs new powers and new resources to address the challenges posed by global supply chains and changing consumer preferences. Dividing and combining agencies is not as important as the roles and responsibilities Congress assigns to food safety agencies or whether these agencies have enough scientists and inspectors to be full partners with food companies.”

In addition to the government’s actions, America’s food supply will need to be better protected and consumers need to be assured that the products they are bringing home are safe. As a result, some companies are taking matters into their own hands.

For example, Nestlé reportedly decided against doing business with PCA after its own inspectors found unsanitary conditions at the peanut processor’s plants in Georgia and Texas.

A 2006 Nestlé audit of PCA’s Texas facility found poor pest control, no pathogen-monitoring program and cross-contamination issues, according to a USA Today report.

Meanwhile, food safety problems and resolutions are just some of the issues that will be addressed at the 11th Annual Food Safety Summit at the Washington, D.C., Convention Center, April 27 to 29.

The three-day event will host food safety professionals, lawyers and global managing directors for an extensive education program on food safety solutions aimed at leading retailers, food processors and foodservice companies. Additionally, it will feature more than 200 exhibitors, a new products showcase and poster sessions.

“The government, the food industry and the consumers all have to play a role in food safety,” an FDA spokesperson remarked. “Members of industry need to make sure they are complying with food safety regulations and that they are implementing Good Agricultural Practices while growing food and Good Manufacturing Practices as they are processing foods.” 

That said, dairy processors will need to ratchet up even their best efforts to ensure a wholesome ingredient supply chain to protect themselves against suppliers that aren’t afraid to take the whole industry down with them.

For more information on BNP Media’s 2009 Food Safety Summit, April 27 to 29, visitwww.foodsafetysummit.com.

Better Balance: Fewer Contacts, More Inspectors

by Donna Berry  Product Development Editor

As President Obama announced top FDA appointments and tougher food safety rules on the morning of March 14, exhibitors at Anuga FoodTec in Cologne, Germany, were dismantling booths after a busy exposition week. The theme for many exhibitors was ensuring quality and safety of the food supply, something that for too long was taken for granted in the States.

“Unlike citizens of so many other countries, Americans can trust that there is a strong system in place to ensure ... that a family dinner won’t end in a trip to the doctor’s office,” Obama said in his weekly morning radio address to the nation. “But in recent years, we’ve seen a number of problems with the food making its way to our kitchen tables. In 2006, it was contaminated spinach. In 2008, it was salmonella in peppers and possibly tomatoes. And just this year, bad peanut products led to hundreds of illnesses and cost nine people their lives - a painful reminder of how tragic the consequences can be when food producers act irresponsibly and government is unable to do its job. Worse, these incidents reflect a troubling trend that’s seen the average number of outbreaks from contaminated produce and other foods grow to nearly 350 a year, up from 100 a year in the early 1990s.

“As part of our commitment to public health, our agriculture department is closing a loophole in the system to ensure that diseased cows don’t find their way into the food supply. And we are also strengthening our food safety system and modernizing our labs with a billion dollar investment, a portion of which will go toward significantly increasing the number of food inspectors, helping ensure that the FDA has the staff and support they need to protect the food we eat.”

Indeed, increasing the number of food inspectors makes sense. So does reducing the number of workers who come in physical contact with food during manufacturing.

A highlight at Anuga FoodTec was the Robotik-Pack-Line initiated by event organizers Koelnmesse and DLG, as well as K-Robotix of Bremen, Germany, in cooperation with well-known technology partners. The robotics line demonstrates the safe, fast and hygienic processing, production and packaging of food products, untouched by a human hand and thus excluding the possible contamination of susceptible products.

Hygiene is of the utmost priority in the processing and production of food products. Sophisticated solutions are needed in the production of complex convenience food products. Three years ago at the last Anuga FoodTec, the Robotik-Pack-Line was honored with the European FoodTec Award in Silver. At this year’s convention, the Robotik-Pack-Line demonstrated its performance as a modular manufacturing and packaging line with the production of mini burgers; however, it could have been a number of foods, including cheese.

Due to the modular design, the Robotik-Pack-Line can be configured individually according to specific requirements. Individual elements or components can be used and intricate production lines designed. Check it out on the Internet at www.robotik-pack-line.de.

Reducing physical contact with food during manufacturing removes one more potential entry for contamination. Food safety is serious, and any production improvement that reduces the risk of illness, or death, is an investment worth making.

“In the end, food safety is something I take seriously, not just as your president, but as a parent. When I heard peanut products were being contaminated earlier this year, I immediately thought of my 7-year-old daughter, Sasha, who has peanut butter sandwiches for lunch probably three times a week,” Obama said. “No parent should have to worry that their child is going to get sick from their lunch.”

Top Qualität Gewährleisten

by Donna Berry  Product Development Editor

When it comes to “ensuring top quality,” look no further than products manufactured by Germans. From automobiles to dairy foods, Germans strive for perfection. Thus, it makes sense that the German Agricultural Society (DLG), based in Frankfurt, promotes food quality using impartial quality standards based on current scientific findings and recognized test methods.

Called the DLG-EuroFoodTest, trained scientists evaluate more than 20,000 foods and beverages every year. In dairy, DLG tests over 2,000 different dairy products annually, including all categories of cheese, butter, ice cream, yogurt and milk, both fluid and powdered. The “DLG Award Winner” label is only issued to products that have been found worthy of it in sensory testing and that satisfy the DLG’s stringent quality criteria.

Independent experts scrutinise the sensory qualities of the products. These tests are supplemented by laboratory analyses. For example, tests examine the taste of yogurt or whether a cream dessert is microbiologically pure. Cheese samples are evaluated for typical taste, odor and consistency for the specific variety.

Producers from all over Europe take part in the international quality tests. About 85% of all dairy companies from Germany send in their products for testing. Oftentimes, samples are called up from the individual producers without advance notice and tasted by experts to ensure that quality has not changed.

At this past Anuga FoodTec, DLG experts tested some 5,500 products from the segments of Sausage and Ham, Dairy Products, Fruit Beverages and Wine. More than 500 international sensory testing experts convened in Cologne for the quality tests.

“Food is here to be consumed, but at the same time is the object of enjoyment,” says Goetz Hildebrandt, scientific manager of food quality testing with DLG. “Eating a cheese cracker while cooking or grabbing a piece of chocolate while watching television without paying attention to taste is certainly consuming, but it is not necessarily enjoyment.”

Hildebrandt says the role of the DLG’s quality assessments and food and drink tests prioritizes this sensory quality aspect and its enjoyment. “We need to bring conscious eating and enjoyment of food back to the consumers and turn it into a cultural value,” he says. “Only then will it be possible to raise the value of food on a day-to-day basis.”

 Quite possibly if consumers can learn to appreciate a single piece of superior-quality cheese instead of 20 pieces of inferior product, the obesity crisis would subside. It’s the responsibility of dairy manufacturers worldwide - not just in Germany - to ensure top quality.