Government, Consumers, and Industry Must Coordinate on Food Safety & Sustainability

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Many of us who have worked in food safety for years understand how Listeria monocytogenes can become harbored in food processing environments, and particularly in freezers. That is why the large recall of frozen vegetables initiated on April 23, 2016 wasn’t a huge surprise to many. After all, we had been seeing frozen vegetable recalls in the recent months preceding this recall. What was a surprise to me was the outbreak linked to these products. Sadly, at the time of this writing there are 8 cases in 2 states resulting in 2 deaths.

Its surprising to me because 1. the pathogen doesn’t grow at freezing temperatures and 2. frozen vegetables are traditionally heated sufficiently to destroy Listeria monocytogenes prior to consumption. Thus, the number of cells you would expect in contaminated product should easily be destroyed by proper preparation. So, besides the enhanced epidemiology and molecular techniques being currently employed to identify sporadic outbreaks, what else has changed? Are people juicing with these frozen veges? This is a new expectation in food safety management.

It is time that we have a national discussion about sustainability and food safety.

Now the recall has expanded into USDA-regulated products that were produced using these implicated frozen vegetables. This recall is an enormous 47,112,256 pounds of not-ready-to-eat meat and poultry products that may be adulterated with Listeria monocytogenes, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced May 11. Shocking. These are products like fried rice and hors d’oeuvres that are ready-to-cook and every label I reviewed has instructions on how to cook thoroughly to 165F.

Are we as a society just going to ignore the safe handling (i.e., cooking) instructions on not-ready-to-eat packages? I would hate to see these cooking instructions become ignored and irrelevant – like legalese at the end of an email or fine print in the use agreement for an app. So far, I’ve not seen if these USDA-regulated products are implicated in any illnesses. 

At this point I would hope food security and sustainability experts will weigh in on the destruction of over 47MM lbs of food and packaging material. Admittedly, they will not actually recover 47MM lbs since much of it has been already consumed, but still the final poundage actually destroyed will be large. Several times in my career I’ve made decisions that sent possibly wholesome product to the landfill that could not be proven to be safe. Its not a decision to be made lightly. Have you ever driven by a landfill, gotten a whiff of the odor, viewed the mountainous pile, and pondered food waste? At the same time I’ve made decisions about mitigating contamination in food processing environments, about release of product into commerce based on statistical microbiological sampling, and about consumer or foodservice operator cooking instructions on package labels. Those are all tough decisions.

I’m not blaming consumers by any means, so please don’t put me in that box for stating my perspective. I’m saying that we as a society need to look at the science and legal aspects and hear from all sides. Then we need to decide what degree of societal risk we are willing to take while still meeting our societal goals to protect public health, the environment, and feed a growing population.

 
brandon strittmatter