2015 Food Safety Summit Recap: Traceability and C. Perfingens

I began looking over the seminars available at the 2015 Food Safety Summit about a month ago. I came across one titled “The Role of Foodborne Disease Outbreak Investigations in the Proactive Improvement of Food Safety Management.” Despite the catchy title, I passed over this seminar without giving it much thought.

My manager mentioned to me that she thought the seminar about the foodborne illness outbreak at the 2014 summit looked good. My response was a befuddled “What?” She said there was a seminar about the foodborne illness outbreak at the 2014 summit.

In a world where the word “irony” is so often overused, misused and misunderstood, here we have a dictionary definition. What’s not to love about a foodborne illness outbreak at a food safety conference?

First off, good job by the folks at the Food Safety Summit to directly address the situation and use it as an educational opportunity.

In the United State alone there are 48 million foodborne illness cases reported annually—resulting in approximately 3,000 deaths. As far as I know, no affected person was seriously harmed in the 2014 summit outbreak.

The fortunately boring repercussions of the outbreak were accompanied by unfortunately boring findings from the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s (DHMH) investigation. What do we know of the most ironic foodborne illness outbreak the world has ever seen? Not much.

Like most true stories, the conclusion wasn’t quite as interesting as the journey. It turns out that if you ate the chicken marsala you had a 5% greater chance of falling ill. While that’s far from proof, for an unscientific guy like me, the outbreak tastes like chicken.

While I was sitting through the presentations, I was struck by the comprehensive investigation conducted by the Baltimore City Health Department and Maryland DHMH.

Activities included a review of the caterer’s entire food prep procedure, hot holding procedures and buffet service procedures. The health departments also had the caterer re-prepare the meal in question, which was then tested for Salmonella, Shigella, E. coli, Shiga toxins, Campylobacter, rotavirus, sapovirus and astrovirus. Samples were also cultured for B. cereus and C. perfingens.

If that sounds exhaustive, it’s because it is. I was struck by the thoroughness of the investigation and I can’t help but try to put myself in the mindset of the caterer being investigated. When something like this happens, I have to believe that cutting corners with labeling or temperature monitoring seems silly.

The Date Code Genie won’t necessarily prevent a foodborne illness outbreak, but think about the different position the caterer is in with a standardized food prep procedure and the high level of traceability the Date Code Genie provides.

All the uncertainty and questions about the food prep procedure are essentially tracked by looking back through the label printing logs to determine when the labels were printed and when the food was prepped.

Obviously this is one step in the equation. According to Ruth Petran, another speaker at the seminar, approximately 23% of foodborne illness stems from improper holding procedures. So reducing the risk of foodborne illness obviously isn’t as simple as proper labeling.

My big takeaway from the seminar was focused around traceability. This term was a bit foreign to me at the beginning of the summit. But by the end of my second day, it was as familiar as C. perfingens (which just so happened to the culprit of the outbreak).

Traceability, in a technical sense, typically refers to the food tracking and data at the top of the food supply chain. But when an event like a foodborne illness outbreak occurs, the burden of proof is thrust upon the final step in a long supply chain – the food preparer.

This isn’t necessarily unfounded. Petran highlighted that, indeed, approximately 77% of foodborne illness outbreaks are direct results of improper food holding, cooking or unsatisfactory sanitation at the point of food preparation. But the remaining 23% of foodborne illnesses stem from unsafe food sources or other factors entirely.

Traceability not only assists in illuminating potential causes in an outbreak investigation, but also potentially limits liability.

The other noticeable refrain at the Food Safety Summit is “If you don’t document it, it didn’t happen.”

I would properly attribute the quote to a source but I would have to list every speaker at the event and nearly every attendee. The statement is a powerful one and rings true at every step of the supply chain, from producers all the way down to restaurants.

While wading through the complex investigation procedures and outbreak statistics, I think the simple conclusion from a food prep standpoint is if you prepare food every day as though you being investigated for a foodborne illness outbreak, you never will be.

So in conclusion,

  1. Focus on sanitary food prep and service procedures.
  2. Start documenting food prep.
  3. Don’t eat the chicken marsala.