October was a scary month to be in the food business, or for that matter, to be a food consumer. The outbreak of salmonella food poisoning linked to ice cream produced in Minnesota has reminded us all that the best food-processing systems in the world can't absolutely ensure the safety of our food supply. Food ingredients already play a major role in ensuring food safety and, if new technologies are exploited, can play a much greater role.
The recent salmonella outbreak has received major publicity because it has been so widespread. The ice cream manufactured in Minnesota was distributed to all 48 contiguous states and, as of this writing, had caused more than 400 confirmed cases of salmonella poisoning in 15 states. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta is investigating up to 5,000 possible cases in 35 states.
However, this case, like the large salmonella outbreaks associated with a Wisconsin cheese plant in 1989 and a Chicago dairy in 1985, represents the tip of the iceberg. CDCP estimates that the U.S. population experiences 50 million to 80 million cases of food-related illness each year, with 9,000 of those cases resulting in death. Besides salmonella, E. coli and campylobacter are common food-borne pathogens. Publicity aside, the cases of food-related illness traced back to food-processing plants are actually in the minority. Food purchased from food-service establishments and food prepared at home account for more than 90% of food-poisoning cases. Contamination is commonly associated with handling of raw food by food-service personnel or in the home, incomplete cleaning of utensils and equipment and undercooking food. The Washington state outbreak last year that was associated with undercooked hamburger in a fast-food restaurant is representative of this risk.
One example of a recent ingredient development that can help minimize the risk of microbiological contamination of food is Avgard, a trisodium phosphate manufactured by Rhone-Poulenc, Cranbury, N.J. When used as a prechill rinse for poultry (which is then rinsed again in water), Avgard is nearly 100% effective in eliminating salmonella and E. coli. The treatment cost is negligible and trisodium phosphate is a safe substance with a long history of use in the food supply. Rhone-Poulenc is confirming its efficacy on beef and pork products, and plans to petition for approvals in these categories.
Other existing food ingredients, such as preservatives and acidulants, have similar benefits. The food-ingredient industry could certainly develop additional new approaches, if the inordinately burdensome regulatory approval process for new substances could be simplified. The Council for Agricultural Science and Technology released a report last month calling for revisions in federal food-safety regulations to reflect the impossibility of guaranteeing a zero-risk food supply, and also recommending an expanded food-safety information data base and public education programs.
It is also important for food companies to contribute to the effort to educate consumers about the much greater risks associated with microbiological contamination as compared with the perceived (and usually negligible or nonexistent) risks associated with anything chemical or "artificial."
C. Gail Greenwald is vice president and managing director of technology consulting for Arthur D. Little Inc., Cambridge, Mass.