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Will the COVID-19 pandemic have an impact on food safety?
According to a May report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2019 incidents of infection from eight pathogens most commonly transmitted through food remained unchanged in the case of some pathogens and increased for others. Nutritional Outlook spoke to two experts who stated that because of the complexity of the food supply chain, expanded traceability is required to efficiently recall products and reduce the spread of infection.
During 2019, the Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network (FoodNet) of CDC’s Emerging Infections Program, which monitors the incidence of laboratory-diagnosed infections in the U.S. caused by eight pathogens transmitted commonly through food, identified 25,866 cases of infection, 6,164 hospitalizations, and 122 deaths. The overall incidence of infection per 100,000 population was highest for the pathogens Campylobacter, followed by Salmonella, STEC, Shigella, Cyclospora, Yersinia, Vibrio, and Listeria.
Compared to 2016-2018, the incidence of pathogen-related infection in 2019 significantly increased for Cyclospora (1,209%), Yersinia (153%), Vibrio (79%), STEC (34%), and Campylobacter (13%).
Importance of Robust Traceability
While the increased use of culture-independent diagnostic tests (CIDT) may be driving up the number of identified infections, this alone does not account for the overall lack of progress in reducing foodborne illness, says CDC in its report. CDC recommends more widespread implementation of known prevention measures and new strategies that target particular pathogens and serotypes.
According to Thomas Burke, food traceability and safety scientist at the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), “Food safety emergencies rely on three pillars to assess and alleviate the situation: laboratory, epidemiology, and traceback. Without robust and rapid traceback ability, it can be difficult to effectively locate and recall the food subject to the given emergency.”
“Additionally, traceability systems which are able to digitally capture and convey information about food ingredients and products among supply chain actors can be used to improve the overall system’s integrity and performance,” adds Burke. “For instance, robust digital traceability may better analyze patterns between production/logistical records and environmental assessments/laboratory results.”
Existing tools like GS1 help companies use global standards in product and logistical unit identity to meet traceability needs and goals, says Burke. Tools like this are crucial because one of the key issues exacerbating foodborne pathogen infections is the complexity of the supply chain, says Don Schaffner, IFT member expert and distinguished professor and extension specialist at Rutgers University (New Jersey).
“Generally speaking, processed foods (e.g. cereal) are lower risk than raw foods (raw meats, fruits, vegetables). But even processed foods can cause outbreaks,” explains Schaffner. “Many processed foods have multiple ingredients, which can make recalls complicated.”
Robust transparency tools are necessary because while quality and safety measures such as third-party certification and auditing programs may reduce the number of recalls overall, they are not foolproof in increasing food safety. Schaffner points out that that recalls are not that same as illnesses, and that most recalls occur from reasons unrelated to foodborne pathogens; therefore, a reduction in recalls does not necessarily signify increased food safety.
For example, in attempting to determine the validity of claims that audits reduce food safety recalls, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency compared food safety recalls between the years 2015 and 2018. The figures showed total recalls went down 6%, but Class 1 and 3 recalls increased 18.35% and 28.57%, respectively. Class 2 recalls showed a 40% reduction. Class 1 recalls represent the highest risk to public safety, while Class 3 situations would not cause any adverse health consequences. Class 2 recalls are situations in which a product may cause temporary adverse health consequences or where the probability of serious adverse health consequences is remote. Based on this data, there is room for improvement of food safety audits.
Impact of Pandemic on Food Safety
While major improvements are needed to reduce the incidence of foodborne pathogens, the current pandemic is not likely play a role in exacerbating the issue, says Schaffner. The fear is that FDA’s decision to halt routine surveillance inspections of food production facilities domestically in addition to foreign facilities will cause safety standards to go down. However, FDA continues to conduct inspectional work remotely such as by evaluating records, and will continue to address critical for-cause inspections when responding to natural disasters, outbreaks, and other public health emergencies.
“All indications are that the federal regulators (FDA and USDA FSIS) are still able to do the work that they need to do to perform the necessary inspections. Likewise, indications that CDC can still perform its function of investigation of multi-state outbreaks is intact,” explains Schaffner. “State and local public health officials are obviously busy with the pandemic, and I don’t have knowledge of every jurisdiction, but I have not heard of any that are struggling with specific challenges. My colleagues in the food industry are working to manage COVID-19 risks in their workers, but they are also continuing to do the necessary actions needed to ensure food safety.”