Food Protection Connection: Food Safety: Who's in Charge?
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(reprinted from Dietary Manager, July/August 2009)
With recalls, outbreaks, and concerns about BPA topping the news headlines, a recent survey conducted for the International Food Information Council Foundation (IFICF) asked US consumers who is responsible for food safety. The answer: Nearly three out of four consumers say food manufacturers (73 percent).
Roughly the same number say the US government is also responsible (72 percent). The next choices: farmers and producers (57 percent), retailers (49 percent), and consumers (41 percent). Exactly one-quarter of survey respondents answered: All five.
Beliefs such as these form the backbone for food safety practices among both clients and team members in a dietary services operation. It’s important to remember that every foodservice employee is also a consumer. So…what else do consumers believe—and do—when it comes to food safety?
The survey revealed that 49 percent of Americans are confident in the safety of our food supply. Another quarter are undecided, and another quarter lack confidence. The majority of consumers rated foodborne illness as the most important food safety worry. Top food safety issues ranked as:
- Foodborne bacteria, such as E. coli and Salmonella (52 percent)
- Chemical contaminants, such as acrylamide, melamine, and mercury (30 percent)
- Imported foods (10 percent)
- Food allergens (two percent)
Precautions at Home
When asked what food-safe precautions they take at home, consumers responded as follows:
- Wash hands (87 percent)*
- Wash cutting boards with soap and water or bleach (77 percent)*
- Cook foods to required temperatures (71 percent)*
- Use a thermometer to check endpoint cooking temperature (25 percent)
- Refrigerate leftovers within two hours of serving (69 percent)*
- Separate raw meat from ready-to-eat foods (63 percent)*
- Use different cutting boards for each product, e.g., raw meat, produce (50 percent)
Interestingly, the five practices marked with an asterisk (*) above declined since a similar survey was conducted in 2008. Data also showed a correlation between taking food safety steps like those listed above and feeling confident about food safety. In other words, perhaps those who “take charge” of their own food safety are most confident—and with good reason.
A HACCP Approach
A HACCP approach tells us that food is vulnerable to contamination throughout the farm-to-fork cycle. This includes growers, manufacturers, retail food service, and of course consumers. It would appear that the most confident consumers are taking some of the steps a dietary manager well-versed on food safety would implement in a foodservice operation as well.
Realistically, we recognize that hazards exist in the food supply. We focus on controls throughout the flow of food. For example, we know ground beef could contain E. coli bacteria. Therefore, we cook to endpoint time and temperature standards (155°F held at least 15 seconds) and call this step a critical control point (CCP). We know that practices such as these increase our control of food safety threats. Clearly, some consumers feel the same way.
Microwave cooking poses its own set of essential food-safe practices. Survey results suggest that consumers have an imperfect grasp of the unique risks involved. How many consumers:
- Follow all cooking instructions? 68 percent*
- Flip, rotate, or stir products during microwave cooking? 62 percent*
- Check the meal package to determine if the product is suitable for microwaving? 56 percent
- Let food stand for appropriate time after microwaving? 48 percent*
- Adjust cooking times based on their own microwave? 44 percent*
- Check microwave wattage? 14 percent
- Use a thermometer to make sure food reaches the required temperature? 5 percent
Again, several key food safety practices (marked *) declined from 2008, according to the IFICF. Among those most likely to follow precautions when microwaving food are elders (65+ years) and individuals with a college degree, according to survey findings. Once again, the survey revealed a correlation between taking these food-safe actions and feeling confident about food safety.
What’s Stopping Us?
A fascinating aspect of the IFICF survey was a series of questions about “obstacles” to food safety. Key obstacles were:
- Lack of information (19 percent)
- Not enough time (17 percent)
- Not having the proper equipment, e.g., cutting boards, food thermometer, or cleaning supplies (11 percent).
More than half of respondents said they faced no obstacles; another 9 percent said they weren’t interested in safe food handling practices. Five percent said they are not concerned about food safety.
International Food Information Council Foundation. 2009 Food & Health Survey. www.ific.org
On the topic of food irradiation as a control for pathogens such as E. coli and Salmonella, 60 percent expressed a favorable view, and more than half said they would be more likely to purchase an irradiated food. Circling back to HACCP, this again reflects an understanding that hazards can be controlled at various points in the flow of food. Food purchasing decisions—both for consumers and for retail foodservice operations—are the first food safety touchpoint in the flow of food.
The IFICF findings reflect a broad concern for food safety, along with some practical adoption of food-safe practices among the general public. Gaps exist in attitudes (whether food safety is important), knowledge (understanding what steps improve food safety), and actions (what people actually do to control threats). Dietary managers can use this information to expand education among clients, and to position inservice training to the needs and underlying beliefs of foodservice employees.
by Sue Grossbauer, RD
Sue Grossbauer, RD is the author of several books and is a regular contributor to DIETARY MANAGER magazine.