Every year, 48 million Americans become sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from mostly preventable foodborne illnesses. And, while many food and beverage processors place a significant priority on food safety, some do not, according to Dr. Darin Detwiler, director of regulatory affairs and food industry, and professor of regulatory policy, economic and history of food for Northeastern University, Boston.
“The goal of the [Food Safety Modernization Act] is for the FDA to take a more proactive approach to preventing illnesses and deaths,” Detwiler says. “Further, the goal includes forming a stronger, integrated food safety partnership with the states. Unfortunately, this will take much support in terms of funding, training, new state legislation, increased staffing and more universal certification of staff and labs.”
That’s why FDA is investing in whole genome sequencing (WGS) technology to identify pathogens isolated from food or environmental samples during foodborne illness. WGS is considered to be the next generation in food safety and prevention.
PulseNet, a network run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), brings together U.S. health and food regulatory agency laboratories to combat infectious disease outbreaks. Using WGS technology, FDA can quickly and more accurately identify a specific strain of a pathogen and its source in hopes of stopping an outbreak sooner and avoiding additional illnesses.
According to Detwiler, now that “food labs are using new, whole genome sequencing to better and more quickly pinpoint sources of outbreaks,...we see a higher quantity of outbreaks that are smaller in size and scale.” (In other words, outbreaks are often found before they get too big.)
Food recalls are costly—from the product recall itself to recouping brand loyalty and consumer trust to any fines/penalties that come with the recall. Likewise, the economic impact of a disease outbreak caused from such foodborne illnesses can be detrimental to the future of a company and the food and beverage industry as a whole.
For example, Jack in the Box lost millions in sales revenue after its outbreak in 1993. An E. coli outbreak in 2000 led to Sizzler filing for bankruptcy. And, a 2002 E. coli outbreak forced ConAgra Foods to recall over 19 million pounds of ground beef, what is said to be the third largest recall in U.S. history.
After each recall event, Detwiler says stock values decreased and didn’t return to positive values until 264 trading days later, leading food safety experts to believe that it takes almost an entire year for a food processor to fully recover from its food safety event.
“Today, no food is untouchable when it comes to foodborne pathogens,” says Detwiler. “Outbreaks tied to non-meat foods have been on the rise, as have outbreaks tied to foods never before considered threats (ice cream, peanuts, sprouts, cucumbers, cantaloupes, leafy greens, flour, etc.