Safe Food and the People Problem

Safe Food and the People ProblemHow does food get contaminated? It’s easy to point fingers at sub-par technology or handling machines that are past their prime, but according to Food Safety News there’s an even bigger problem: People. Why? Because at some point during the journey from single component to final product all food items are handled in some manner by people—who don’t always follow the rules. The result is food-borne illness, but is it possible to solve the “people problem?”

Outbreak Outcome

Consider the case of a Michigan state Salmonella outbreak last year. As noted by the Food Poison Journal a report on the outbreak has just been completed and points to three main causes: Raw eggs, cross-contamination, and poor food handling—likely at the processing facility. In Texas, meanwhile, the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal reports that Lubbock food inspectors have their hands full dealing with restaurants that don’t follow proper food-handling procedures. The Journal reports that the number one food violation stems from poorly-cleaned contact surfaces such as cookware or cutting boards. Number two? Poor hygiene practices on the part of employees. Simply put, the data supports the assertion: People are a real problem when it comes to food.

The 20-60-20 Rule

Food safety consultant and auditor Jose Sabal asserts that there’s a “bell curve” here: 20 percent of employees will go above and beyond mandated procedures to ensure prep surfaces are clean and processing machines are properly disinfected before each use. Sixty percent simply follow basic hygiene and cleanliness rules—most of the time—and 20 percent will never comply under any circumstances.

Despite best efforts and employee training, these 20 percent always sneak through and are a significant factor in the spread of food-borne illness. While you can’t reach the bottom 20 percent you can influence the next 60; regular training and procedural updates combined with clear expectations and consequences result in better food handling outcomes. But you can’t just ignore the bottom 20 and hope for the best—the FDA is currently rolling out its Food Modernization Safety Act which provides “a legislative mandate to require comprehensive, science-based preventative controls across the food supply.” In other words, companies that don”t meet minimums standards could face serious consequences.

So what’s the answer? While changing the behavior of the bottom 20 percent isn’t possible, companies can take steps to ensure that machines handled by these workers don’t pose a health risk. By mandating regular cleaning with dry vapor steam cleaners and sanitizers, food processing companies can get ahead of problematic employees’ desire to flaunt the rules while providing time for these businesses to root out their worst food-handling failures.

Food processing will never be perfect, but the FDA is taking steps to improve safety and sanitization. Companies can do their part to stop the spread of food-borne illness—and avoid possible legislative action—by educating employees and leveraging best-in-class cleaning technologies.

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