Bill Marler, food safety advocate and managing partner of foodborne illness law firm Marler Clark, asked the food safety community to weigh in on the most pressing food safety challenges for the coming year. As with the “Top Ten Food Safety Stories of 2008”, there was no shortage of contenders.
1. Globalization: More international recalls and outbreaks due to expanding globalalization of the food supply and the challenges of oversight/infrastructure in developing countries. International challenges probably deserve a list of their own, but in the mean time, this wide umbrella includes the possibility of bioterrorism and/or “economic/chemical terrorism” (intentional adulterations with a profit motive, like melamine).
2. Local Food: Outbreaks linked to local food and/or farmer's markets. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) groups and food co-ops need to demonstrate knowledge and practice of food safety, and be inspected. In addition to produce and meats/fish, prepared items are currently unsupervised.
3. Non-O157 STEC (Shiga Toxic producing E. coli) illnesses and outbreaks (both beef and produce): E. coli O157:H7 is listed as an adulterant, is tested for, and is still a terrible problem. E. coli strains that are non-O157 (but are equally as deadly) have not been evaluated or listed, and are not regularly tested for.
4. Animal to Human contamination: More contamination events involving the whole food chain (from animal feed to animals to humans). Whether it’s dioxin in Irish hogs or melamine in Chinese egg-laying hens, it’s clear that what goes into animals eventually goes into us. As the market for animals-as-food grows, so does the price to feed those animals and then the impetus to cut corners.
5. Having to do more with less: Public funding for food safety research, surveillance, and education is down, but the work load (and its importance) continues to grow.
6. 21st Century communication: In addition to improving communication between each other, food safety agencies need to improve communication with consumers. Outbreaks will move through the population with increasing speed, and agencies need to streamline their processes (and embrace social media like twitter and Facebook) in order to keep up.
7. Balancing food protection and environmental health: How to balance on-farm food safety practices with the protection of water quality, the prevention of soil erosion & dust, and the protection of wildlife and their habitats.
8. Zoonotic diseases: The rise of grain prices and starvation in other parts of the world will have many consequences, including the possibility that as people hunt wild animals for food, they may become exposed to new diseases, triggering a zoonotic virus jumping into humans. (A zoonotic virus is one that originates in animals and crosses to humans, like avian influenza.)
9. Consumers and food safety: How do consumers sort through the cacophony of information on food? What’s “safe”? What does “organic” really mean? How it that “USDA inspected and passed” is doesn’t guarantee pathogen-free meat? Who does the consumer believe/trust? Included in this category are the raw milk controversy, food irradiation, and even the new labeling laws like COOL (Country Of Origin Label). Will we get closer to farm-to-fork tracking of all fruits and vegetables this year?
10. Pet food ills: Pet food testing is increasing, so the level of contamination will become more apparent, and we should expect more recalls. Supervision of the pet food industry as a whole needs improvement, with clarity in ingredients and calorie counts.
“Food Safety is a vital part of the overall health of our country and our economy,” said Marler from his office in Seattle. “The new Obama administration will be facing enormous challenges, and food safety is certainly one of them.”