Eye of the Storm
by Lynn Petrak
Recall fever leaves dairy mostly unscathed, thanks to ongoing diligence in food safety.
Do you want the good news first or the bad news? That query, posed by those who have both types to share and answered in different ways depending on one’s degree of optimism, can apply to today’s food safety outlook. Depending on a particular vantage point, it could be a glass half full of milk or a glass half empty.
For those who opt for the not-so-positive report up front, food safety has once again bubbled to the surface as a major concern among Americans. After years of relative quiet and assurances that this country boasts the world’s safest food supply, the integrity of the farm-to-fork food chain has come into the glare of the spotlight.
More than a year of regular headlines about major food product recalls, plus concerns about foods and ingredients imported into this country, have had a cumulative effect. Stories about tainted spinach, onions, peanut butter, canned meat and even hummus are not only seeping into the public consciousness but have resulted in a statistical drop in consumer confidence.
According to the Washington-based Food Marketing Institute (FMI), 66 percent of shoppers report that they are “confident” that the food they buy at the grocery store is safe — a figure that is down from 82 percent last year and at an 18-year low. What’s more, 38 percent of consumers say that they have halted buying certain items — including produce and meat — due to foodborne illness outbreaks that generated negative publicity in the last year.
The foodservice side isn’t as rosy, either. The same FMI research shows that 42 percent of patrons indicate they feel safe about meals consumed away from home.
Other figures could be improved as well. Although the food supply in the United States is, in fact, among the safest in the world, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that tainted food still results in about 5,000 deaths and 76 million illnesses annually. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), for its part, estimates that five main foodborne pathogens rack up a nearly $7 billion toll in health care and resource costs every year.
There are troubling developments, too, in the most recent research on foodborne illness. According to 2006 information from the CDC’s FoodNet surveillance system, sicknesses caused by the E. coli bacteria increased last year, after several years of declines. Infections tied to the Vibrio bacteria, usually associated with raw seafood, have jumped to the highest levels in the past decade. More relevant to dairy, Salmonella cases are at the 6,655 annual mark, totaling about 39 percent of the total cases of foodborne infections.
With that out of the way, here comes the good news.
Although, as with other years, there have been some kind of dairy product recalls over the past year, most of the high-profile foodborne illness outbreaks and detections have been traced to foods other than dairy.
Also on the plus side for those in the business of producing and marketing dairy products is the strong halo that has encircled dairy foods and beverages for decades. “One of the advantages that we have in the dairy industry is that pasteurization gives us a level of safety that is difficult for other foods to achieve — pasteurization takes care of so many things and dairy products have an excellent track record,” says Allen Sayler, senior director of regulatory affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA).
In addition to the proven method of killing bacteria after processing, this industry’s products have a reputation and accompanying track record for safety due to other voluntary measures, on both an individual company and industry-wide basis. “It isn’t just pasteurization, though — it’s much more than that,” Sayler says. “The dairy industry is under so many regulations, both federal and state, and dairy companies go way beyond those regulations with extensive good management practices (GMPs), allergen programs and other things like that which result in product that have a high level of safety.
With such strong voluntary measures in place, which range from voluntary Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) plans to the latest in sanitation technology to investments in rapid testing, many dairy manufacturers take several preventative steps to make sure that when the product leaves their facilities, at least, it is safe as possible. “We try to do the best we can with pasteurization and storing everything properly,” says Wendy Landry, quality control director for Oakhurst Dairy, Portland, Maine, which was an early participant in a voluntary HACCP certification program. “But you do always worry about how people will treat your product once it gets to the store and beyond.”
To her point, post-manufacturing handling is a major control point and one that can make a difference between a safe product and food safety incident. According to the USDA, 97 percent of all foodborne illnesses can be prevented by following proper food handling practices in the home.
Back in the processing and manufacturing part of the farm-to-fork chain, dairy companies are taking myriad measures in their efforts to button up their part in preventing contaminated products, products that may accidentally contain allergens or products that may not be produced under secure circumstances.
As Sayler points out, pasteurization takes out a significant amount of risk with dairy products. Those dairy producers that do not take the step of pasteurization, in fact, open themselves up to the spread of microbes and resulting consumer illnesses.
A review of product recalls and safety-related announcements from the USDA and FDA, for instance, shows that most milk recalls are for unpasteurized or raw milk, for cheese made from raw milk or for product that were discovered later to be inadvertently underpasteurized or incorrectly pasteurized.
Even though there are relatively few raw-milk providers in the United States, their products are a concern for dairy industry leaders. “There has been a grassroots effort in a number of states for more flexibility to allow the sale of raw milk,” says Cary Frye, vice president of regulatory affairs for IDFA, noting that foodborne illness were eradicated with pasteurization when it was introduced a century or so ago. “It’s not a mainstream issue and it’s not the dairy industry we represent, but nevertheless we have a position on it and have provided information about our position to the sale of raw milk based on the evidence,” IDFA recently sent lawmakers in Nebraska who are currently considering a study to determine if that state’s regulatory agency could permit the production and sale of raw milk. IDFA’s senior vice president of legislative and economic affairs Chip Kunde commented in the letter: “Based on the preponderance of scientific evidence that clearly indicates consumption of raw milk is potentially dangerous and that the simple steps of pasteurization can all but eliminate this hazard, IDFA urges the Nebraska legislators to reject LR 349. The dairy industry and the state legislators and regulators need to work together to uphold consumer confidence in the safety of milk by maintaining food safety regulations not weakening them.”
When it comes, in fact, to adhering to food safety regulations, mainstream dairy producers continue to implement a variety of proven and new measures.
In a formal way, many processors have implemented HACCP plans. Although not mandated, as it is in the juice and meat processing industries, HACCP is a cornerstone of most dairy and dairy-based companies in the U.S. Ultimately, HACCP programs are designed to address food safety problems before they start, at key junctures in production, processing, storage and distribution.
“As far as industry efforts internally, I think the penetration of HACCP is very high. First of all, it’s the best food safety program we have at this point, and second, customers are demanding it and international companies often require it,” Sayler says.
Indeed, most major U.S. food manufacturers have some type of HACCP system in place, albeit to varying degrees. Kraft Foods, Northfield, Ill, for example, applies the worldwide-recognized HACCP system to its products, while Dreyer’s Ice Cream, Oakland, Calif., follows HACCP plans in its plants. The Dannon Co., White Plains, N.Y., likewise, keeps HACCP as a foundation for its efforts. “A thorough HACCP plan has long been part of Dannon’s product protection and safety protocol,” says Michael Neuwirth, senior director of public relations for Dannon.
Some dairies have become HACCP-certified by the FDA, as part of an early pilot program run by the National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipments (NCIMS).
Oakhurst Dairy is one example and is now in its fourth year of HACCP programs, Landry says. “Our customers had been asking for it and we volunteered for the pilot program because [CEO] Stan [Bennett] thought it would be great to be on the cutting edge,” she says, adding that Oakhurst was one of only 16 dairy processors to sign on in that first wave of the pilot certification program. Many of the measures the company was already proactively taken were rolled into HACCP in a formal way, Landry says.
Farmland Dairies, Wallington, N.J., opted for the pilot HACCP certification through FDA as well. Four years into the official program, HACCP is proving to be a work in progress, as was its intention, says Emil Nashed, Farmland’s vice president of quality assurance and R&D. “Our HACCP program is a fluid program. Our SOPs and SSOPs are updated, our GMPs are affected when we have added processing and filling equipment, for example. Even when you have people changing positions, moving from one area to another, it is also upgraded,” he explains. “Also, as we gain more experience, we fine-tune.”
Meanwhile, to help those companies just starting a HACCP program or to aid those looking to enhance their existing HACCP systems, training programs offered by a variety of individuals and groups are available. IDFA, for example, has sponsored HACCP seminars on a regular basis for years. This spring, IDFA broke down its Advanced Dairy & Juice HACCP workshop in various sections and made them accessible by phone and on the Internet.
One of the next phases in HACCP, along with other operating elements like the FDA’s regulation for GMPs, is the increase in validation efforts. The Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research in Madison, Wis., conducts HACCP short courses as well as outside evaluations of such programs. “We have seen increased requests for third-party audits. These audits include a review of GMPs, food defense and HACCP principles,” says Marianne Smukowski, safety/quality applications coordinator.
Farmland Dairies has independent evaluations of its HACCP procedures, among other operations, Nashed says. “We do third-party audits for the plant. Because we are a HACCP-certified plant, it is very rigorously inspected, and some of our supermarkets and customers that we supply also have their own audits where they come in,” he says.
While formal plans are in place to check critical control points, what and how dairy safety and quality professionals are looking for potential food safety glitches is often a work in progress.
Right now, given the spate of recalls and concern over imports from China and other parts of the world, the quality and safety of ingredients are getting a closer look. “The newest thing on the line is that we are getting third-party audit results from our suppliers in China,” Landry says. “Now with all of these recalls, it is at the forefront.”
At Dannon, Neuwirth says, the company has fielded inquiries about imported ingredients. “We assure all consumers who inquire about product safety about the strict quality standards we have for all ingredients and packaging and the rigorous quality control procedures we have in place, including our supplier reviews and approval process for all ingredients and packaging,” he says.
Researchers and other industry leaders, too, have seen an uptick in buzz about imports. “Another item to be concern with is products manufactured outside the U.S. They do not have the same regulations as we do here and certain food products have created problems here,” Smukowski says. “So, an education to international countries is needed to understand and meet U.S. regulations/specifications for food products.”
Allergens are also garnering a lot of attention, continuing a trend that began in the last two years, with the passage of the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act. Dairy, after all, is listed as a top allergen and other allergens, like tree nuts and eggs, are common ingredients in dairy products.
Although there are no new regulations tied to allergens and companies are now supposed to be in compliance with labeling requirements, IDFA’s Frye says dairy operators understand they must be diligent about controlling allergens. “The real challenge day in and out is to be sure there is not cross-contamination, that sanitation is properly done,” she says, adding that, among other efforts, IDFA has helped encourage the development of a visual identification program to help flag ingredients that fall under various allergen categories.
In response to concerns about allergens, dairy operators have worked on allergen detection and prevention programs, in addition to label declarations. “If we have any allergens in our products we make sure to label them clearly and in the most easily understandable terminology. Additionally, if we do introduce any new products with allergens, we do make sure to notify the appropriate organizations in advance of introducing the product,” Neuwirth says. Farmland also has enhanced its testing protocols for allergens, says Nashed, while Oakhurst Dairy established allergen testing even for seasonal products, like eggnog.
To that point, rapid testing — whether to gauge the presence of antibiotic residue, harmful microbes or allergens, in surfaces or in finished products — continues to be a focus of food safety and quality control programs in dairy plants nationwide and in overseas facilities owned by U.S. companies.
Nashed, for instance, reports that Farmland Dairies has invested in more rapid-testing tools and services. “Last year we introduced a new pre-operation testing of equipment, to give us results to see if equipment is ready or not,” he says of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) bioluminescence testing. ATP tests identify contaminants via the detection of light emitted from living organisms.
In addition to programs and technologies in place to protect food from spoilage or contamination, dairies continue to tighten up their operations and plants to guard against intentional contamination. “Right after 9/11, the dairy industry was one of the leads in the food industry, looking internally at its processing operation sand shoring up any weaknesses that may be identified,” Sayler says. “We’re now five or six years away from that and I think security has been ramped up in so many areas, from perimeter fencing to having security agencies on top of it to have internal controls on the use of some of their ingredients and chemicals. We’re never saying we can’t do better, but I’d say that the dairy processing industry is highly secure.”
As an example of ongoing improvements to security, the FDA recently released a new tool to help producers, processors, transporters and retailers determine the vulnerability of their food chain to potential biological, chemical or radiological sabotage. The new program, called CARVER + Shock Software Tool, was introduced over the summer.
Lynn Petrak is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area.$OMN_arttitle="Eye of the Storm";?> $OMN_artauthor="Lynn Petrak";?>